Penn State football doesn't have a marquee matchup this Saturday—the Nittany Lions don't play at all, in fact. Nevertheless, Week 5 of the 2013 college football season could go down in the annals of Penn State football history as a watershed moment.
Head coach Bill O’Brien willingly took on a difficult situation, unprecedented in its magnitude—and that was before the NCAA handed Penn State the most severe sanctions given to a football program since the 1980s.
As players departed, unencumbered by the usual transfer restrictions, and with the reality of four bowl-less seasons and a Championship Subdivision-sized roster looming, O’Brien would have been justified had he left for the greener pastures of the NFL.
It could still happen, as NFL.com's Ian Rapoport wrote after O'Brien signed an extension in June. However, there's more reason for the coach to remain invested in Happy Valley.
His patience with both the process and with Penn State could pay dividends for the coach, but more so the university’s athletic program. The NCAA's reversal of scholarship reductions over the coming years changes the long-term outlook for both Penn State and O’Brien.
"The scholarship additions will allow us to provide more student-athletes with a tremendous opportunity to earn that degree and play football for Penn State," O'Brien said in his official statement Tuesday per GoPSUSports.com.
O’Brien was oftentimes diplomatic when addressing media on Tuesday’s Big Ten teleconference call, and sometimes cryptic.
“It takes a while to digest it and apply to where you’re headed,” he said. “Even when we get [a revised recruiting] strategy in place, I’m not going to talk about it publicly.”
How the reversal of scholarship limitations changes O’Brien and staff’s strategy may be unclear, but it certainly will change it.
His recruiting in the first two years under the cloud of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal and later NCAA sanctions was commendable. Still, O’Brien felt the obvious limitations.
“The difficult part came with the numbers. That was difficult that you were only going to be able to take one kid in the position,” he said. “We always felt from the day we walked in here, once we were able to get a young man and his parents on campus, the place sold itself.”
Now with more freedom to make that same pitch to more prospects, O’Brien can build the foundation for a program that could emerge from its sanctions as a viable championship contender.
The remarkable turnaround of former quarterback Matt McGloin in just one season under O'Brien's guidance is a testament to the coach’s motivational and in-game ability. He coached McGloin to succeed not by hiding him in the offense, but showcasing him.
Given the wonders O'Brien worked last season, the sky is the limit for freshman Christian Hackenberg at Penn State.
Simply inking 2013 5-star prospect Hackenberg was a major coup for O’Brien and his staff. But with a field general for the future and more reinforcements on the way, Hackenberg has a bright future.
A noted quarterback guru like O’Brien must relish the opportunity to cultivate that future.
As for the bowl ban, O’Brien said on Wednesday’s The Herd with Colin Cowherd on ESPN Radio that every game in Beaver Stadium is its own bowl.
That may be the pitch O’Brien must make now, but the possibility of pursuing championships—the Big Ten, the Rose Bowl, perhaps even the College Football Playoff—is a pitch the coach can make to more recruits on the trail going forward.
Title talk may be premature. The 2016 season is a football lifetime away, and Penn State remains behind in recruiting, even if it’s less so.
“We’ve got a long way to go at Penn State,” O’Brien noted.
But with the future’s outlook much clearer now, O’Brien could be the coach who leads the Nittany Lions down that road.
Kyle Kensing is the Pac-12 Lead Writer. All quotes were obtained firsthand, unless otherwise noted. Follow Kyle on Twitter: @kensing45.