On Saturday afternoon in Happy Valley, in the waning moments against Illinois, things looked bleak for the Nittany Lions. Then Bill O'Brien, as he almost always does, found a way to avoid back-to-back losses yet again.
Much was made about O'Brien's coaching "following the bye week" when his team came out flat against both Indiana and Ohio State after a week off.
There are several factors that go into bye weeks, including scheduling and juggling time off for the players. Ideally, with an extra week to game-plan, you'd like to see teams come out extra-prepared, but it's not quite that simple. In fact, every team has graduate assistants looking a week ahead in preparation all year long, essentially game-planning for two weeks all year long.
Preparing for the next opponent is never a one-week process.
Preparing for the next opponent following a loss, however, is a one-week process. When combined with the emotions of 21-year old players under the pressure of being student-athletes, it can amount to quite a meticulous task. A task that O'Brien has seemingly mastered.
You'll hear coaches talk about not letting a certain team "beat us twice" or a phrase that legendary basketball coach Bob Knight coined: "Last game, next game." Locker room leaders harp on not celebrating a win for too long, while also not carrying the burden of losses into the following week.
The reason so many coaches harp on this aspect of coaching is because it's a real thing. And it can be damning.
#PennState improves to 3-0 in OT and 6-1 after a loss under Bill O'Brien— Jeff Nelson (@GoPSUJeff) November 2, 2013
Northwestern entered its game against Ohio State with a 4-0 record, ranked in the top 20. It looked like the Wildcats had finally turned the corner. After playing the Buckeyes to a near-draw, Pat Fitzgerald's team came away with a loss. The next week, they were blown out by Wisconsin, 35-6.
After losing to Michigan, a now 7-2 Notre Dame team went into Purdue and needed 21 fourth-quarter points to beat the Boilermakers. Purdue ranks among the worst in the FBS in nearly every statistical category, coming in at 100th or worse in rushing offense, passing offense, points scored and points allowed, per ESPN.com.
There are examples of this every week if you look for them. It comes down to the leadership of the team, in particular the coaching staff.
O'Brien's Lions were coming off of an embarrassing 63-14 loss to Ohio State last week when preparing for Illinois. They easily could have been sluggish during practice leading up to the game.
Instead, in a game that saw a porous defense give up over 400 yards and a stagnant offense that failed to score in the first 28 minutes of the second half, O'Brien and his team found a way to win. Much like he has done following the last six losses.
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While accumulating a 6-1 record following losses, Bill O'Brien has shown the ability to keep his team focused in times of adversity. He has a knack for getting his players to move on, never getting too high or too low.
In fact, the one loss O'Brien has suffered following a loss could have easily been avoided with a slightly better day by kicker Sam Ficken, but that's spilled milk at this point.
While there has been plenty of criticism floating around concerning O'Brien's play-calling and defensive coordinator John Butler's "schemes," some praise is due for this staff's ability to relate to their players in desperate times.
A famous State College coach once said, "You're never as good as you think you are when you win; and you're never as bad as you feel when you lose." The man who inherited his job has this team buying into that same concept.