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Penn State Football: (Somewhat) Great Expectations for 2014

by on December 09, 2013 1:45 AM

There were expectations 17 months ago that Penn State football would fall flat on it on its sanctioned face.

Penn State head coach Bill O’Brien, a rookie at the time, knew that better than anyone.

“When the sanctions came out two years ago everybody thought that the program was going to take a huge dip. And it dipped,” O’Brien said a few days before his squad upset Wisconsin in the 2013 season-ender.

“It’s not where we all wanted it to be, no question about it. But it didn’t dip into the abyss. And that bodes well for the future. We have a lot of good young players and we’re excited about where they’re heading.”

Seasons of 8-4 and 7-5 will do that to a program that has been the object of officious organizational expectorating. Now, the expectations are higher. The coach is boding, the future not so foreboding.

A DICKENS OF A SITUATION

Dickens’ classic novel, Great Expectations, was a coming-of-age tale. After a dickens of two years, the expectations for Penn State’s football program moving forward are equally as compelling. These Nittany Lions, too, they’re coming of age. And they only have themselves to blame.

First (actually, last), they finished with a flourish. If not for a missed field goal against Nebraska, Penn State would have matched its 8-4 record of 2012 with a 2013 squad that was, admittedly, not as talented as its predecessors. And the way the Lions marched out, with a roar, is reason for great – er, pretty decent – optimism for 2014. 

“My perception is this: I think in this program this year, we had a small margin of error,” O’Brien said just minutes after a 31-24 win over No. 14 Wisconsin. “More times than not, we beat that margin of error. We made fewer errors and won seven games and lost five. But when we made too many mistakes, we lost a lot of close games and got blown out once” at Ohio State. 

Penn State lost two games by three points each, and was within four after three quarters in a third. And not counting blowouts of Kent State and Eastern Michigan (a combined 6-18 in 2013), the Nittany Lions won a lot of nail-biters, too – by 6, 3, 7, 24 and 7 points. Stuff like happens when your opponents, cumulatively, had a record of 57-56 (a .497 losing percentage) and you are hovering around .500 as well, which was the case with Penn State in 2013.

Nonetheless, O’Brien will take it. 

“We’re two years into, basically, a new program -- by that I mean that on July 23, 2012, things changed because of what happened with the sanctions,” he said at season’s end. “To be where we are right now, could we be better? Certainly we could be better. We could have coached better. We could have played better. But I think this program’s in pretty good shape right now.” 

ONLY “PRETTY GOOD” 

If O’Brien were really satisfied with the 2013 season, that everything was in tip-top shape, then he wouldn’t have made the coaching staff moves he made barely 12 hours after returning from Madison.

Ron Vanderlinden was the linebackers coach of the only two-time winners in the history of the Bednarik Award. He also coached a third winner of the Bednarik, a winner of the Butkus Award and four first-team All-Americans. Charlie Fisher coached the Burlsworth Trophy winner one year and the Big Ten Freshman of the Year the next. Those are a lot of awards and trophies. But obviously, certain expectations weren't met.

And equally as obvious is that O’Brien isn’t satisfied. And for good – or bad – reason. His team lost five times in 2013. That ranks Penn State in a tie with 16 other teams as the 53rd-best college football team in America. That’s almost dead center of the 128-team rankings. The good, the bad and the dead center are O'Brien's responsibility. He’s The Head Coach.

What to do next? Well, that’s The $64,000 Question. And at O’Brien’s pay rate for this school year, he makes enough to answer 65.9 such questions correctly.

In some ways, the Nittany Lions are victims of their own success. Even with the sanctions, they had a better conference record than Michigan, Northwestern, Indiana, Illinois and Purdue. The last two are to be expected, sanctions or not. But not the first two. The Wildcats went 1-7. And Michigan was 3-5 in the Big Ten and 7-5 overall.

Keyed by the Win On Wisconsin, moving forward everyone will look a little differently at Penn State. From Bill in the mirror to MSU and UCF on the chalkboard. Expect a little more. Give less of a free pass. Add in the sanction reductions, and the allowances will be a lot less – right or wrong. It may still be a handicap race, but when down the 2014 stretch they come, Penn State has shown it can close against teams that left the gate with much better odds. You watched the Wisconsin game, didn’t you?

More than anything, though, it is the modifications of the NCAA scholarship sanctions that will increase everyone’s expectations. Players, coaches, fans, the media, other teams.

THE ENGLISH FOOTBALL LEAGUE

Right now, in looking ahead – and why not, Croke is only 234 days away – Penn State’s 2014 schedule is clearly layered into three groups. Let’s speak in terms they understand in Dublin. If the Nittany Lions’ slate next year were set up like the English Football League System, it would look like this (2013 records in parentheses):

Premier League, level 1 – Michigan State (12-1), Ohio State (12-1) and Central Florida (11-1). O’Brien’s favorite coach and … well, one who is not.

Football League Championship, level 2 – Maryland (7-5), Michigan (7-5), Rutgers (6-6), Northwestern (5-7), Indiana (5-7), Illinois (5-7) and Akron (5-7). More parity than the NFC North.

Football League One, level 3 – Temple (2-10) and Massachusetts (1-11). Clearly, these two should be relegated.

So, two League One gimmes are offset by at least two Premier losses. That leaves lots of shades of grey for 2014. But, expectations should be fairly high. And again, that is Penn State’s fault. After all, it has:

-- To replace just seven departing seniors who were in the staring lineup against the Badgers: linebacker Glenn Carson; safety Malcolm Willis; defensive linemen DaQuan Jones and Kyle Baublitz; and offensive linemen Adam Gress, Ty Howle and John Urschel.

-- Christian Hackenberg, who had nine 200- and four 300-yard passing games, just two interceptions after October, was ranked No. 2 in Big Ten completions and went out with a 21-of-30, 339-yard, four-TD bang against Wisconsin.

-- Zach Zwinak, who in the final four-game stretches of the 2012 and ’13 seasons, had a per-game average of 27 carries, 144 yards, one touchdown and one-quarter of a fumble.

-- Freshman receivers Adam Breneman, who grabbed a TD pass in each of the last three games, and Geno Lewis, who in the first and last games of the 2013 season had a combined five catches of 59 (for a TD), 54 (for a TD), 29, 8 and 3 (for a TD) yards, and a kickoff return for 57 yards.

-- A defense that could feature healthy linebackers Mike Hull and Ben Kline, a surprising Brandon Bell, a comfortable Adrian Amos, an exuberant Jordan Lucas, a-no-longer-MIA Deion Barnes, an unzettled Anthony Zettel, a secondary performance like the one against Wisconsin and an overall countenance like the one it had since halftime against Minnesota. Since then, PSU's defense surrendered just 51 points, six touchdowns, a 32.6% third-down conversion rate and an average of 349 yards per game.

-- A line on one of the nation’s top recruits, defensive lineman Thomas Holley, who will be playing in Yankee Stadium nest week, and could sign up to 23 high school seniors, with a handful starting school in January 2014. O'Brien offered this before the Wisconsin game: "We feel good about where we're headed recruiting wise. Every single game we've had a lot of great prospects here. ... We feel good about the '14 class, and we feel good about the the '15 class, because you're always trying to stay one step ahead."

Of course, many of those expectations are largely based on potential.

And you may recall what Joe Paterno liked to say about former Maryland coach Jerry Claiborne's take on that:

"Son, your potential is going to cost me my job.”

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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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