Penn State Football: They Are … Fighters Part Deux
They’re Fighters Part Deux, these 2013 Nittany Lions. Maybe even moreso than the originals.
They work in Sometimes Grumpy Valley, where it’s true that a team takes on the personality of its coach, as this group knows.
They have a head coach who, when he shows up for a post-game press conference these days -- whether after a victory or a loss -- he’s still in game mode, still ready for a scrap.
They revel in it, said senior center Ty Howle said Saturday after Penn State defeated Purdue 45-21 to (289-yards) run its record to 6-4. “O’Brien is a fiery guy, everyone knows that.”
They know it’s that way, even after a win?
They do, said Howle, who just laughs. “Yeah, he’s always fired up. That’s what we love about him. He constantly wants us to get better. Starts at the top then goes down to the coaches, the players and everyone else.”
They are sometimes forgotten and often overshadowed by the larger-than-life 2012 squad, even as they play in the more challenging Year Too of Penn State’s sanction march.
They still think, as does their coach who shot from the lip after seeing the Hazell of Purdue’s eyes, that they are in this thing alone. Don’t misunderstand: This fire is fun to watch, fun to play under.
They see it every day, says linebacker Glenn Carson. “He’s always fired up before a game. He’s a very passionate guy. He’s completely behind us and we’re completely behind him. We kind of feed off of each other. We really mesh well. He sets the tone of how he wants us to play and what is expected of us. We know how to play. He’s taught us so much about football, in the film room and on the field.”
They don’t quit. They’ve won after a loss. They’ve won after a loss. They’ve won after a loss. And, again on Saturday, they’ve won after a loss.
They won in four overtimes. They won in one overtime. They’ve won in August, in September, in October and in November. They’ve won in light. They’ve won in dark. They’d probably win eating green eggs and ham.
They have ensured a .500 record, at least. Which, 24 months ago and then again 16 months ago, many said could never happen. And they can very well do better. They have a good chance Saturday against Nebraska, which beat Illinois by 20 (PSU beat Illinois by 7), beat Michigan by 4 (PSU beat Michigan by 3), beat Purdue by 37 (PSU just beat Purdue by 24) and lost to Minnesota by 11 (PSU lost to Minnesota by 14).
They said no to leaving Penn State for 54 weeks from July 23, 2012, to Aug. 4, 2013, knowing theirs was a decision that would last the next two years, three years or – given a redshirt -- even four years.
They said, like defensive tackle Kyle Baublitz did again on Saturday, that it’s about “staying committed. Signing a letter of intent for four years is important. That’s important these days. Some people say they’ll do stuff, but they don’t follow through. That’s a big thing. Facing adversity, you don’t turn things down – you work through it.”
They’ve had fans buy 577,585 tickets to see them play six games in Beaver Stadium so far in 2013, an average of 96,266 people – fifth among 128 FBS schools and also fifth among the 658 college football teams playing in the FBS, FCS, Division II and Division III this season. Only Michigan, Ohio State, Alabama and Texas average more. (And that’s despite being STEPPED on by a new seat licensing program and left town out to dry by almost all the folks responsible for it.)
They won after seeing 31 seniors leave campus. They've won with just a dozen or so true seniors and fifth-year players. They welcomed on Saturday one of the biggest crop of recruits this fall, nearly matching the group that came to see Michigan, Homecoming and a Whiteout. They know that’s a good sign, as the Lions look to spend a few extra scholarships thrown their way by the NCAA.
They run with the football like they’re mad – too mad, sometimes, as illustrated by six fumbles lost in the last eight games. Yet they’re resilient. And by they, Blaublitz means Zach Zwinak: “Zach runs like he’s angry. He’s always physical. If he makes a mistake, he comes back. A couple of times everyone thought he’d be down, but he persevered.”
They – Zwinak and Bill Belton – have frustrated O’Brien with their drops: “They’re good players. They’re great kids – they’re better people than they are players. … I just told them in (the locker room), ‘The reason I get frustrated on the sidelines when we fumble the ball is because I have high expectations on this team.”
They have high expectations too, if you listen to defensive tackle DaQuan Jones: “We won and our offense and our defense are on the same page and playing complementary. But we are pissed off a bit. We’re not having the year we want to have, so we have to go out there and play our best, as hard we can ... and look for a W in the next two games.”
They and their perpetually-in-motion defensive coordinator, John Butler are tired of hearing about a troubled defense. They’ve gotten more aggressive and have yielded just two touchdowns in the last six quarters. A third came against PSU’s special teams against Purdue on a 100-yard kickoff return.
They can expect changes this week, as O’Brien’s weekday practices often yield Saturday’s starters. “…We need to get back to work on that on Monday and get that fixed. And we will. (Special Teams coach) Charles London does a great job with that. Maybe we need to replace some guys, get some guys who are hungry.”
They don’t take mistakes lightly, says charismatic sophomore cornerback Jordan Lucas: “I’ll be the first one to say this: I’m very hard on myself. When I give a play up, that means a lot to me. My roommates know that. Everyone knows that. When I make a bad play, I want to bounce back to do another one.”
They hear you, Jordan. They are a lot like Butler, and by they we especially mean Lucas, who’s emerged as a star of the Lions’ defense: “On the field I’m never quiet. I’m always talking. I’m energetic. I like to get my teammates going. Today in the second half, I said, ‘Let’s give the crowd something to cheer about. Let’s go out there and make a show.’ I want everybody to match each other’s intensity and for the most part we all do that. When one guy is up here, we’re all up there. Want to keep that going every drive, every game.”
They – and by they we especially mean Bill O’Brien – wants that, too, especially over the next two weeks. He knows that the 2013 season will be over in less than 300 hours.
And they – meaning you, me, the players, the fans, the media -- know that O’Brien, who loves only his family more than his job, is probably not happy about that, either.