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O'Brien downplays national pundits

October 10, 2012
By Tim Schoen ( , The Altoona Mirror

UNIVERSITY PARK - Penn State coach Bill O'Brien has been the Nittany Lions leader for six games, but he has already begun to earn respect throughout the Big Ten and around the country.

After Penn State's thrilling 39-28 win over Northwestern on Saturday talk of O'Brien being in contention for national coach of the spread throughout college football highlight shows and on Twitter.

O'Brien downplayed any talk of being considered for the end of the season honor during the weekly Big Ten coaches' conference call and said it is the furthest thing from his mind.

"There are a lot of great coaches in this country," he said. "I have only coached six games in my whole career so that is the farthest thing from my mind."

The Lions started the season 0-2 after a tumultuous offseason that saw unprecedented NCAA sanctions and key players transfer with just over a month before the season began. Penn State has since righted the ship and won four straight games,

After this weekend's bye, Penn State will travel to face Iowa (3-2, 1-0 Big Ten) in a night game at Kinnick Stadium. The Lions will then return home to Beaver Stadium and face Ohio State on Oct. 27. The Buckeyes are currently undefeated.

O'Brien called the second half of the season's schedule "murderers' row" and said his team needs to continue improving if it wants to remain successful.

Belton not 100 percent

Running back Bill Belton was limited to just four carries for 12 yards on Saturday. The tailback appeared to still be hampered by an ankle sprain that he suffered in the season opener on Sept. 1 against Ohio.

O'Brien confirmed on Tuesday that Belton is still probably not at 100 percent health-wise and said the injury was a significant high ankle injury.

Belton, who was moved from receiver to tailback in the offseason, returned to the field two weekends ago against Illinois for the first time since sustaining the injury. But since returning, his carries have been at a minimum.

O'Brien said Belton is trying to get back into the groove of his position while having his ankle finish healing.

"Billy is a good football player," the coach said. "I do think this bye week will let him heal up and get back into the rhythm of the offense."

Specialists lack consistency

The Penn State special team unit is coming off a weekend to forget against Northwestern.

The Lions gave up a punt return for a touchdown, muffed a punt that led to a Northwestern score, and Evan Lewis allowed a punt that roll 15 yards that pined the Lions at their own 15-yard line to begin the fourth quarter.

O'Brien said the team would dedicate a good bit of time to improving the special teams this week in practice.

The coach said while he agrees the special teams unit has a whole have struggled; the specialists in particular have not played with enough consistency. O'Brien said his kicker, punter, and long snapper all need to do a better job as the season moves forward.

Kicker Sam Ficken's struggles this season have been well-documented. The sophomore has hit on only 3-9 field goals. He did connect on a 21-yard field goal on Saturday and went 4-4 on extra points.

"I think we have to be careful when we say our special teams haven't played well," the coach said. "I think our specialists need to play better but overall our kids on special teams have done some good things."

O'Brien said he has been mostly pleased with the job done by the kickoff, kick return and punt return unites.

Ex-Lions still playing

Former Penn State teammates Paul Jones and Dakota Royer were seen Monday night playing together on an intramural flag football team at the school.

Both players chose to leave the Penn State program this season but remained enrolled at the school. Royer left the team in the beginning of August and Jones at the end of September.

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