It was a bizarre, awkward moment. You could sense the unease of the crowd as the montage started.
During the Big Ten media days banquet back in July, the Penn State Nittany Lions' introductory video began by highlighting then-star running back Silas Redd. At that same exact moment, Redd was visiting the USC campus, trying to determine whether he should stay at Penn State or transfer to elsewhere.
Everyone in the room was very aware of this. And as the final 2011 clip faded and the screen went black, the spotlight once again turned to Penn State head coach Bill O’Brien for answers that he didn’t really have. How could he, really?
The 42-year-old, first-time head coach had a podium presence that made you feel he had been there for much longer than one miserable offseason. He spoke confidently about his team, his expectations, their fans and what to anticipate with the 2012 season.
His pitch has been fine-tuned—perfected even—but this was to be expected to some degree.
As impressive as it was—and he was fabulous throughout this challenging Big Ten greeting—it meant very little when it came to the short- and long-term outlook of the program. This was only the beginning of a long, difficult process.
We're all very aware of how Penn State's offseason transpired. We're also aware of the penalties and punishments in place that will likely hinder this program for the next decade. Months removed from his introduction and even the NCAA's announcement of these penalties, and Bill O’Brien has something brewing.
It’s hard to pinpoint how far he will take this team or to forecast what the rest of his tenure will be like with a four-year bowl ban and massive scholarship cuts. Right now, however, he has somehow taken a gutted team—which was talent-challenged well before the sanctions hit—and made them very competitive despite a rocky start.
After jumping out to a 14-0 lead against Ohio in the opener, the team gave up 21 points in the third and fourth quarters and fell to the MAC giants. The “this is going to be a long year”-themed columns rolled out, and we saw even more of them after the following game.
Penn State got out to an early lead once again, although kicker Sam Ficken missed four of five field goals (including a potential game-winner) and an extra point as Penn State fell 17-16 to Virginia. Following the loss, we wondered how low this team might get.
The Nittany Lions have rebounded, however, and they have improved in each of the past four weeks, each of which yielded a victory.
Make no mistake about it; they haven’t been playing the nation’s best teams in the past month. While victories over Navy, Temple and Illinois don’t jump off the page, their comeback victory against an unbeaten Northwestern at home last week certainly does.
Somehow, this team found an offense.
Entering the season, no wide receiver on this team had caught more than five passes at the collegiate level. The losses of Silas Redd and wide receiver Justin Brown left them with very few potential playmakers and returning touchdowns on offense, while quarterback Matt McGloin had shown very little over the course of the last few years to make you believe he could put it together.
With limited weapons, we had further doubts.
O’Brien’s offensive influence, however, has worked wonders on McGloin. His performance in the early part of 2012 is light years better than what we saw last season. He already has more touchdowns and will likely eclipse his yardage total for the entire 2011 season in the team’s seventh game. Other numbers when comparing the two highlight the significant progression.
This is what Bill O’Brien brings.
We heard plenty about how he had his team watching Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in action. Will we ever mistake this offense for a high-powered force? Probably not anytime soon, but the improvements, even throughout the past month, are obvious.
His offensive background will be a tremendous trait going forward.
Our observations of this team will fluctuate greatly over the remaining part of the season. The schedule will become more difficult, and games at Iowa, against Ohio State, at Purdue, at Nebraska, home against Indiana and home against Wisconsin are all on tap.
It’s very possible that Penn State will only win one of these games and finish the season with fewer than six wins. It’s also quite possible that this team will continue to improve, pick up momentum and ride this strange 2012 ride to a seven-win season.
Truthfully, the results are probably somewhere in between.
But for Penn State, this would be a victory. In fact, I’ve seen more production and quality performance out of this team in 2012 than I anticipated all season. They’ve overcome quite a lot, and this is a testament to the players and certainly their head coach, as they have found success after a turbulent first few chapters.
The long-term outlook for this team is ominous. The sanctions, scholarship cuts and bowl ban will impact how they recruit, and the results will suffer. Evaluating this team in a four-game bubble against lesser competition is far from the whole story; for now, though, it’s what we have to go off of.
But it’s more than that. This month-long resurgence means more than just tallies in the win column. It goes beyond box scores and offensive improvements.
Bill O’Brien’s offseason message has boiled over into the season in the form of actual results. We didn’t expect much—regardless of his delivery—but he has delivered thus far.
And with each week, he’s looking more and more like the perfect man for the job.
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