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Penn State Football: A Year Later, a Start That is Two and Oh!

by on September 08, 2013 12:22 AM

A year ago at this time Penn State was, “Uh oh … and two?”

Now, after defeating Eastern Michigan 45-7 in Beaver Stadium, it is, “Two and ... oh!”

What a difference 364 days makes.

Forgetting all the off-the-field stuff (not possible) and adjusting for the learning curve of both coaches and players (if mathematically measured by John Urschel), Penn State starting the season with two wins is not as easy as it looks. Or as common as you would guess.

Dating back 64 Penn State football seasons to 1950 – Rip Engle’s first year as head coach – it’s always been even money that the Nittany Lions would begin the year 2-0.

Counting Saturday, they’ve done it just 33 times over that period. And only six times since 2000, and just once since 2009.

The Nittany Lions opened 2012 with a 24-14 loss to Ohio in a game where they were really defeated by raw emotion and inexperience and and tired legs on a hot day. They followed that up with a 17-16 loss at Virginia, where they couldn’t get a leg up on the Cavaliers. Both were winnable.

“We knew we were better than those teams,” Adrian Amos, a cornerback making his second career start that day, said Saturday. “We started out 0-2 and made a lot of mistakes. We felt that if we played them down the line we would have beaten them. By a lot.”

The slow start was understandable. The NCAA sanctions were 10 weeks old, the coaching staff and schemes were new, and many of the players were inexperienced. The squad returned just seven players who had eight or more starts in a single season. By contrast, the 2013 team has a dozen of them. The 2012 team entered the year with a combined 139 starts; the current team started the season with 30% more – 181 starts.

“Honestly, the biggest thing” between 2012 and 2013, said defensive coordinator John Butler, “is that now it’s just about football – not all that other stuff.”

Added linebacker/safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong: “Last year with everything going on, it was tough to get going. Guys weren’t doing what they needed to do.”

But under Bill O’Brien, Penn State found its feet and ripped off five straight wins, lost two out of three, then won a pair – including an OT victory over Wisconsin to finish 8-4. As it was, in 2012 PSU led at some point in every game. Including Ohio State.

BETTER...BUT 'BACKER AND Q-BACK

From the get-go in 2013, at least this week and last, Penn State is exactly like that. And not all. It’s better – although not at linebacker, of course, where three-year starter Glenn Carson is not outflanked by Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges, and triage is not just a Scripps National Spelling Bee trap word.

And, right now, PSU is not better at quarterback, either, although in the opening two games Christian Hackenberg has thrown for 589 yards and three touchdowns, but with five sacks, three picks and a fumble for a TD. Then again, his predecessor, Matt McGloin, had four full years of college and a spring practice to learn O’Brien’s offense. As it was, McG opened with 457 yards passing, four TD passes and just one sack.

Still, it’s already evident that Christian can hack it in major college football.

“A lot of guys played offense for us last year. Obviously, we lost Matt. But everyone else is back except for a couple of linemen (Matt Stankiewitch and Mike Farrell),” said assistant head coach Stan Hixon, who coaches the receivers. “Even though we have some growing pains with the quarterback situation, Hackenberg is going to be great … I’ve been around for a long time, but I think he’s going to be a really, really good player.”

Penn State’s elder statesmen at receiver -- Brandon Felder and Allen Robinson, who have combined for a ridiculous 26 receptions for 358 yards and two touchdowns over the first two games – have the rookie quarterback’s back. Together, they’ve played eight seasons at PSU.

“We have a lot of older guys on offense – like Allen and myself – to take over the game and help Hackenberg make the right reads and get going,” Felder said. “We had a lot of reads out there that we missed, a couple look passes we should have had. But that’s what you expect from a young quarterback. He’s going to get better.

“We tell him, ‘Keep your head in the game, things aren’t always going to go right. And when they do, make the right decision and we’ll be there' …. It’s just like last year, when we were not familiar with the offense. We know a lot just by being a year into it.”

That difference is big, both offensively and defensively.

The defense, according to Butler, who coached the secondary in 2012, then became DC when Ted Rood headed south: “Last year it was totally new … I think the kids are settled in and understand where we’re at in Year 2 defensively. What I may be calling maybe be different than what Ted called, but systematically it’s the same stuff. The comfort level these guys have is much better.”

The offense, according to Hixon: “The players are more comfortable on both offense and defense. And we as coaches know what players to put in different spots in game situations. Year 2 is always huge.”

HERE'S...CARSON

Carson, a fifth-year player who already has his degree, is the team’s most seasoned player. By far. In fact, he was the only Nittany Lion on the field Saturday who started against Eastern Michigan in 2011, the last time EMU came to Beaver Stadium – and lost, 34-7. He had five tackles and a fumble recovery in that 2011 game and led the Lions with 10 tackles in Saturday’s rematch.

“I vaguely remember that game, but we didn’t watch too much of that film since they run a different style of offense now,” Carson said on Saturday. “That was under the old staff, before the sanctions, right?”

Penn State started 1-1 that season, opening with a win over Indiana State and then a loss to Alabama – a much tougher Game 2 than Eastern Michigan, that’s for sure. But a lot has changed since 2011, as well as since 2012. It’s 2013, and Penn State is 2-0 with 10 victories in its last dozen games. It all goes back to the head coach, said Carson. Although he was Coach of the Year in 2012, Carson said O’Brien is even better a year later.

“We just feel even more confident in Coach O’Brien as a leader,” said Carson, one of the team’s biggest leaders himself. “We know he’s the guy to do all the things necessary to continue this roll.”

The odds of 3 and OH, even though a very tough Central Florida team awaits? Since 1950, all but six of the 32 Penn State teams that started the season 2-0 made it to 3-0. That’s 81.25%.

Remember that O’Brien is an educated gambler. In fact, he’s a perfect 4 of 4 on fourth downs this season.

So, even if next Saturday’s game is against his old mentor, UCF’s George O’Leary – or, perhaps, because of it – he has to like those odds.



Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979. He is a senior lecturer in Penn State's College of Communications and teaches a pair of classes in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism: “Sports Writing” and “Introduction to the Sports Industry.” He created and taught for several years the Center’s course on “Joe Paterno, Communications and The Media.” Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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