O'Brien says Nittany Lions need to show improvement

Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien. (Nabil K. Mark/Centre Daily Times/AP)
Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien. (Nabil K. Mark/Centre Daily Times/AP)
Posted: September 08, 2013

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - Penn State coach Bill O'Brien seemed to be in a jovial mood during his weekly radio show this week, giving lighthearted answers to questioners asking about his team's struggles on third down, why he didn't use the shotgun more and rushing against a stacked defense.

But as the hour wore on Thursday night and the questions about last Saturday's opening-day shortcomings continued, O'Brien's answers became shorter and less humorous. Finally, the coach had something to say.

"I've been asked about third-down percentage, hot reads, the shotgun, running into a nine-man front," he said. "Let's remember we have 65 scholarship kids that are fighting their butts off every day. We have 100 kids on this football team. At the end of the day, we're going to be as competitive as we possibly can be.

"Let's remember it's about fun, about college, about academics, about fighting and winning every day. It's not about third-down percentage. It's about 65 to 100 kids working their butts off every single day and we have to remember that as Penn State fans.

"I'm very well aware that what we did on third down doesn't usually win the day. But we won the day. We tried to win [Thursday], we're going to try to win [Friday], and we're going to try to win Saturday."

O'Brien wants people to recognize that the Nittany Lions defeated Syracuse with true freshman Christian Hackenberg making his debut at quarterback while withstanding a hot day, injuries to starters Matt Lehman and Mike Hull and a suspension that benched all-Big Ten wide receiver Allen Robinson for the first half.

The numbers, however, alarmed even some of their most loyal fans - four turnovers, most in the O'Brien era; a worst-in-the-nation 1-for-16 third-down conversion rate, and 57 yards rushing on 38 carries. Before Hackenberg lost 7 yards with three kneel-downs at the end of the game, the Lions had rushed eight times for 9 yards in the fourth quarter trying to run down the clock.

O'Brien agrees that the Nittany Lions need to show improvement Saturday when they host Eastern Michigan in their home opener at Beaver Stadium. At least he knows which areas need work.

"Where you really get a feel for your team is in that first game, especially if it's a game against a real quality opponent in a neutral site with adverse conditions" such as muggy heat, he said earlier in the week. "So I do think we learned a lot about our team.

"We can go to the film room and say, 'Look, guys, this is what we as a coaching staff need to do better. This is what you need to do better. If we make these improvements, we've got a chance to improve next week.' "

Eastern Michigan (1-0) does not appear to be the caliber of opponent as Syracuse. The Eagles, 2-10 last season, were down, 24-13, at home late in the third quarter to Howard, a Football Championship Subdivision (Division I-AA) team, before scoring the game's last three touchdowns in a 34-24 victory.

Howard gained 202 yards rushing against the Eagles last Saturday, but O'Brien said he is concerned about the variety of defenses they will throw at his team.

Defensively, the Nittany Lions allowed Syracuse quarterback Drew Allen to complete just 43 percent of his passes and held the Orange to 71 yards rushing. EMU's Bronson Hill rushed for 101 yards against Howard.

At halftime, Penn State will honor the undefeated 1973 Nittany Lions, who went 12-0 but fell short of a national championship in both the AP and UPI polls. More than 50 former players are expected to be in attendance including Upper Darby's John Cappelletti, winner of that season's Heisman Trophy.

Eastern Michigan at Penn State

When: Saturday at noon

Where: Beaver Stadium, State College

Records: Eastern Michigan, 1-0. Penn State, 1-0.

TV/Radio: Big Ten Network; WNTP-AM (990), WNPV-AM (1440).

Coaches: Eastern Michigan, Ron English (fifth season, 11-38); Penn State, Bill O'Brien (second season, 9-4).

Series: Penn State leads the series, 2-0, thanks to wins in 1992 and 2011 at Beaver Stadium, but the latter result was vacated by NCAA sanctions.

Three Things to Watch

With the loss of tight end Matt Lehman to a season-ending knee injury, the Nittany Lions could utilize true freshman Adam Breneman in Lehman's spot, or go to a different package involving an extra wide receiver or even a fullback.

O'Brien said Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, who was the Nittany Lions' defensive star last week while mostly playing linebacker, would work a little on offense in practice this week. Does he have a little wrinkle in store involving the senior?

O'Brien might look to establish the running game so that the line and backs can gain some confidence. Zach Zwinak, a 1,000-yard rusher last season, averaged just 2.5 yards on 24 carries last week.

Three Things You Might Not Know

O'Brien and Eastern Michigan offensive coordinator Stan Parrish have something in common: Each tutored New England quarterback Tom Brady, Parrish as quarterbacks coach at Michigan in the late 1990s, O'Brien in the same role and as offensive coordinator of the Patriots.

Philadelphia area players with the Eagles include junior Ryan Brumfield of Chester Springs (Owen J. Roberts), freshman defensive back David Pulliam of Philadelphia (Northeast) and quarterback Brandon Bossard of Eagleville (Methacton).

If Sam Ficken can make his first field-goal attempt, it will mark his 14th in a row, breaking the school record held by Craig Fayak. Fayak booted 13 straight field goals in 1992.

- Joe Juliano

Contact Joe Juliano

at jjuliano@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter @JoeJulesInq

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