O'Brien is confident that Penn State will bounce back

Nittany Lions quarterback Christian Hackenberg lets a pass fly and braces for a hit vs. Indiana. Associated Press
Nittany Lions quarterback Christian Hackenberg lets a pass fly and braces for a hit vs. Indiana. Associated Press
Posted: October 08, 2013

Bill O'Brien likes to assert that no team is the same from year to year. That's true for the 2013 Penn State Nittany Lions, who are finding the going a little more difficult than last year's did.

The Lions last year felt the very existence of their program threatened by NCAA sanctions but saw their season rescued by a strong and resolute group of seniors, a fifth-year senior in Matt McGloin who had one of the best years of any Penn State quarterback and, in O'Brien, a new head coach who captured national headlines.

The 2013 team has less depth because of the sanctions, even though the NCAA has restored scholarships that will get Penn State back to the NCAA maximum 85 by 2016. They have a true freshman, Christian Hackenberg, who has taken some lumps in his five-game crash course as a college quarterback.

What everybody's wondering is whether the Nittany Lions have the same back-against-the-wall mentality they did last season, and whether they have vocal senior leaders who can help them recover from Saturday's shocking, 44-24 loss at Indiana in their Big Ten opener.

O'Brien thinks they do, on both counts.

"I think when you look at this football team," he said after Saturday's game, "we have 61 kids on scholarship and 40 walk-ons, can't go to a bowl, can't play for a championship. It's not an excuse. But we have a lot of resilient kids here. They show up to practice every day, they practice hard. I think the reserve is still there.

"We lost to a team that played very well today. We didn't coach well. Our kids, because of that, didn't play very well. There's still a hardworking attitude here at Penn State. I don't think in any stretch of the imagination that this is a normal Penn State team, 61 kids on scholarship and 40 walk-ons.

"But these kids are practicing hard. We have to coach them better. We have to put them in better positions. We have good players. And that's what we're going to try to do."

The number of scholarships mentioned by O'Brien is believed to not include four scholarship players who are out with long-term injuries.

O'Brien also said the low number of scholarships was not an excuse for not being able to practice hard.

"We hit, we really do. We practice hard," he said. "What I'm saying is, this is just a football team that's working extremely hard with some really fantastic kids on it. It is what it is. I think these guys are working extremely hard to play as hard as they can. I think we coached very average today, and we can't coach average in this situation. We've got to coach better."

After four weeks of calling more rushing plays than passing plays, the Nittany Lions called 59 pass plays - counting 55 throws and four scrambles by Hackenberg - and 33 runs (not including a botched field-goal snap that lost 31 yards).

The lack of balance was surprising against Indiana, which entered the game ranked 115th in FBS in rushing defense. The Lions were unable to finish drives, and the Hoosiers put the game away by scoring three touchdowns in less than four minutes in the fourth quarter.

Penn State must bounce back quickly for its homecoming game Saturday against No. 18 Michigan at sold-out Beaver Stadium.


jjuliano@phillynews.com

@joejulesinq

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