O'Brien has reason to cherish Lions seniors

Penn State coach Bill O'Brien has plenty of holes next season.
Penn State coach Bill O'Brien has plenty of holes next season. (Associated Press)
Posted: November 25, 2013

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - A nasty wind began howling before the temperature started dropping, and snow squalls kept passing through. The bundled-up masses inside Beaver Stadium on Saturday could have saved their body temperature a degree or two by showing up late in the day. They had to know nothing would be decided until after dark.

For the third time in four Big Ten home games, Penn State took things to overtime. This time, a Nittany Lions field goal attempt in OT faded right. A Nebraska field goal attempt from the same 37-yard distance was good . . . but no. False start on Nebraska.

But then, good from 42 yards. Cornhuskers win, 23-20.

What did it all mean? Not much, other than the possible difference between a 7-5 or 6-6 season, with a visit to Wisconsin next weekend to decide that. These Nittany Lions aren't terrible but are not good enough. That was determined long before, in all sorts of weather.

So let's look ahead. Penn State had some scholarships returned as post-Sandusky NCAA sanctions were reduced, but coach Bill O'Brien has plenty of holes to fill. Right now, this program isn't just behind Ohio State but behind a number of other Big Ten rivals. The next recruiting class will be a crucial one. It isn't just special-teams miscues holding the Nits back.

With Beaver Stadium shutting down for another winter, it's also time to go back, down a familiar road, to cloudier days in the summer of 2012 after the NCAA sanctions were announced, when it was open recruiting season for Penn State football players. Any player could leave and gain immediate eligibility, anywhere.

While preparing a book, University of Michigan lecturer John Bacon received unusual access to Penn State's program in the summer of 2012 just as those NCAA sanctions hit.

What Bacon outlines in Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football, is that seniors Michael Mauti and Michael Zordich, lauded for their leadership last year - for staying and leading the charge for others to stay - may not have been lauded enough.

These guys weren't just rah-rah guys. They strategized with O'Brien about how to keep Penn State's program together. Bacon's book reveals how Mauti and Zordich even changed O'Brien's mind on a couple of key strategic maneuvers.

Originally, O'Brien had planned to give his players a stay-or-transfer deadline. Mauti and Zordich convinced their new coach that would be a mistake, that the longer players took to make up their mind, the more likely they were to stay.

They also convinced O'Brien that they should speak publicly about why they were staying, which they did live on ESPN, without any script approval from him.

Those two also told opposing recruiters (including those with Penn State ties) where they could shove their recruiting overtures. A text from Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray was returned by Mauti with exactly that sentiment (and then some), directed to a former Nittany Lions strength and conditioning coach "on behalf of the entire Penn State team."

Those guys ran the whole counter-transfer program almost like a political campaign, in concert with O'Brien. Who cares now? Penn State fans should. Christian Hackenberg, already committed to play here but not yet signed, could eventually have seen more dominoes falling and become one himself.

And who knows how long O'Brien would have stayed without such an attractive project to be part of. He had plenty of NFL overtures last year, but no great quarterbacks to tinker with at any of the proffered spots.

The events of that 2012 summer never veer too far from O'Brien's mind. Saturday was senior day. Virtually all this year's seniors had options to leave.

"This senior class stuck with this program and stuck with this university during a very tough time,'' O'Brien said. "I think people need to remember that. This senior class will go down as just as special a senior class as last year's senior class. They could have left.''

Not that this cheered O'Brien up.

"Tough night for us,'' Penn State's coach said more than once.


mjensen@phillynews.com

@jensenoffcampus

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