In a 34-0 win over Kent State last Saturday, the Penn State Nittany Lions had their ground game running on all cylinders, rushing for more than 250 yards in a game dominated by the rain. That caused fans to wonder what he was thinking when Bill O'Brien called 10 passing plays in an 11-play segment in the second half.
Christian Hackenberg completed just one of those 10 passes and threw an interception during that sequence.
Even the announcers were criticizing O'Brien's decisions to continue passing the ball.
In the end, Penn State scored four touchdowns and won, easily.
It was evident early on that Kent State was overwhelmed, offensively. The only time they broke the Penn State 40-yard line was on a possession that started at the 36. They totaled just 190 total yards and averaged only 2.3 yards per rushing attempt. The reality is that no matter what plays O'Brien called, his Nittany Lions were leaving Beaver Stadium with a win.
Bill O'Brien knew that, despite the fact that he would never admit it.
When things weren't going well for his freshman quarterback, O'Brien knew he could afford to give Hackenberg the opportunity to work through it. A three-and-out wouldn't put the game in jeopardy. So that's exactly what he did. Hackenberg never seemed to get it going in the second half so the team went back to the ground game and all was well again in Happy Valley.
The seasoned play-caller took a calculated risk and, if given the chance, he would take it again, despite his post-game comments.
"No, it was more just the play calls. Again, I wish I had a couple play calls back. I thought we were running the ball well. There was one series, where I threw the ball three plays in a row and I should've been booed on that. I have to call better plays there. I have complete confidence in Christian."
No coach would ever admit that he was comfortable with his lead and the opponent couldn't do anything to threaten it. But that was the case on Saturday.
He's also never going to throw his quarterback under the bus.
There was what seemed to be an obsession with throwing the fade to Allen Robinson when the Nittany Lions were near the goal line. In what seemed like a half dozen attempts, none were successful and Robinson caught just three passes in his least productive game of the season.
"We have to go back and continue to practice that. Again, we have to coach it better, it starts with me. Coach it better and execute it better with both Christian and Allen. We'll get better at that. I thought at times, the ball was thrown a little flat or at times, maybe Allen could've run a better route. That didn't work out too well today."
It appears that Hackenberg has the option to audible to that fade when he sees single coverage on Robinson around the goal line. That was the look he was getting and he checked to that play. O'Brien was likely not responsible for those plays but he'd never admit that because, frankly, he doesn't mind the criticism. He also doesn't want the media to scare Hackenberg away from the coaching he has received.
O'Brien is a seasoned play-caller. He didn't just all of a sudden lose his way on Saturday. He has a smart staff around him and it was evident that the game was in control whether they ran the ball or not. Fans should sleep fine at night, knowing that O'Brien isn't going to lose many games with his play-calling.