Penn State Football: Hitting the Apex of Year 1 with Bill O'Brien Should Leave You With Mixed Feelings
IOWA CITY, Iowa — We are in Sanctionian Nirvana. Savor this night, Penn State nation. Few have felt as good in the last 11 months as Oct. 20, 2012. And you know what’s next. Unbeaten Ohio State and Urban Meyer at Beaver Stadium under the lights in an all-stadium Whiteout.
Saturday’s effort at Iowa will be remembered for the on-field shelling of the Hawkeyes. I think we saw two larger forces at work here. First, Bill O’Brien may not just be coach of the year in the Big Ten, he might have brought the damndest thing to the Big Ten since Joe Tiller and Purdue utilized the forward pass in ways the conference just wasn’t accustomed to seeing. Whatever the name you want to use for the offense O’Brien imported from the New England Patriots, it has gashed three Big Ten defenses, and, at the very least, assured the series with the Iowa Hawkeyes will never be the dull, brain-drain football of the last decade ever again.
Penn State morphed into its NASCAR package on the second series of the game and the ensuing 2:49 of game clock introduced Kirk Ferentz to a much different Penn State team than the conservative kind of a bygone era, one he defeated eight of 11 times. Two nine-play scoring drives in less than three minutes, two more two-play touchdown drives in less than 30 seconds and a 12-play, 63-yard drive ending with a 34-yard field goal by Sam Ficken. After all that, Penn State still had a 97-yard drive in it, too.
"Y'all haven’t seen our NASCAR package yet," senior cornerback Stephon Morris said. "That wasn't NASCAR. Our NASCAR, it's up tempo. It's really fast. It’s faster than what y'all have seen."
Is there a more attractive offense to play in if you’re a high school prospect in the Northeast with NFL aspirations than Penn State’s, four-year bowl ban be damned? It’s Year 1 and it just dispatched the patriarch of the conference, Ferentz. Defensively, Penn State hasn’t skipped a beat, the well-oiled defensive front seven continues to be among the league’s best thanks to defensive line coach Larry Johnson and linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden, the only two coaching holdovers from the old guard. The trick, of course, will be attracting the offensive talent to thrive in O’Brien’s offense under the scholarship limitations and lack of postseason until 2016 at the earliest. But if O’Brien can continue to do what he’s done with personnel he inherited, if he can mold relative unknown Kyle Carter into one of the conference’s best tight ends, if he can transform Matt McGloin, a former walk-on, into the best pro-style quarterback in the league, lose Silas Redd and Justin Brown and seemingly make due with Bill Belton, Zach Zwinak, Allen Robinson and Brandon Moseby-Felder, then what can the on-field product look like with top-flight talent?
That, however, must bring us here, to the sad, sobering reality that this team will never know what its ceiling could be. Consider this scenario: Win the Leaders Division, collect the hardware at home against Wisconsin and then watch the Badgers take your spot in Indianapolis for the right to play in the Rose Bowl. There is no SEC power or Pac-12 champion waiting in January, just the cold, bitter bite of winter. Instead of 15 bowl practices and perhaps the story of the year in college football sung from the national pundits all through the holiday season, there will be more questions about who is staying and who is leaving under the ridiculously lax transfer rules in conjunction with the NCAA sanctions that allow players to transfer to any school until preseason practice 2013.
And, oh yeah, let’s not forget Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Curley/Schultz.
But that should not be on anyone’s mind on this night. And maybe being here, 773 miles away, detached from it all — save five students dressed in black and white prison garb with Jerry Sandusky’s name on the backs and an Iowa scribe named Mark Emmert — was the true beauty of this whole situation: A group of 70 men fighting like hell and breaking out for the performance of the year to date in prime time. What is soon to come is coming, and that’s inevitable. Saturday’s performance and ensuing week of bedlam in advance of next week’s showdown against the Buckeyes? Almost unfathomable on Sept. 8 after a loss at Virginia. Now, the high point after a year of dismay.