Penn State Football: At Midway Point, Lions Refusing to Bow Out
And on the sixth Saturday, there was resiliency, and Bill O’Brien saw that this was good. So good, in fact, that the scheduling gods have aligned a day of rest next week.
There’s a lot to like about this Penn State team, from the coach, to the senior class, to the fourth down cajones of the coach and the emergence of talent untapped by the previous regime, whether it’s a result of development or simple opportunity.
Eleven-point deficit entering the fourth quarter of a game that win or lose does nothing to change the fact there is no trip to Indianapolis or Pasadena waiting for an unbeaten Big Ten squad? Who cares?
That’s why a season destined to be unlike any other in the 126 years this school has fielded a football team has been so rewarding. At any point, any week, this group could bag it. Now, after watching a come-from-behind victory against a team playing for much, much more, there’s little to no doubt that Penn State just won’t give an inch on effort.
“There's no quit in that locker room,” O’Brien said following the team’s 39-28 victory, one which saw the Nits outscore the Cats 22-0 in the fourth quarter. “I don't know what's going to happen the rest of the year, but there will be no quit with those kids that are sitting in the locker room.”
Said senior quarterback Matt McGloin, fresh off a school-record 35 completions: “We’re playing every game like it’s our last.”
Let’s look at the moment that encapsulates this. It’s fourth down and four from the Northwestern six-yard line, and Penn State is trailing by 28-17. Conventional thinking says take three points and cut the deficit to one possession.
Of course, O’Brien dials up the play, McGloin finds Allen Robinson in the back of the end zone, Penn State runs Mike Zordich up the middle on a draw for the two-point conversion and it’s a three-point game.
And then, 4th-and-2 from the Northwestern 19, a field goal needed to tie. O’Brien puts the ball in his quarterback’s hands again, and he delivers a 13-yard strike to Brandon Moseby-Felder en route to the go-ahead score.
“You've been with this number 11 kid for nine months now and you know the plays that he likes,” O’Brien said. “You feel good about the rhythm he's in, so you keep it going. You're only looking for two yards and hopefully you can squeeze a pass in there or he can scramble. Something good can happen, because you know he's going to make the right decision.”
There is no shortage of responsibility O’Brien is entrusting to his players. Nobody really knew what Zach Zwinak could bring to the table until three weeks ago, but the redshirt sophomore emerged as a viable every-down threat for this offense. Kyle Carter and Robinson are two of the biggest weapons in the passing game, and neither made much of an impact last year.
He has made scout team players feel vital to the team’s success through a “Dirty” moniker. He has made special teams a badge of honor for players such as Ben Kline and Jesse Della Valle. Rather than berate the former walk-on after he lost concentration signaling for a fair catch and fumbling a punt, O’Brien pulled Della Valle aside on the sideline and turned a critical error into a teachable moment.
This is still far from a perfect product. The field goal unit had a nice day of work Saturday. The punt unit and punt coverage units had moments it would like back. But those aren’t the storylines on this day.
“We’re 4-2,” O’Brien said. “Who knows where we’re gonna end up?”
So much of what lies ahead for this program is in limbo and largely dependent on whether or not these players decide they want to listen to recruiting pitches from opposing coaches after the season. Few venues provide something as close to cavalier as this place.
Will that work? Who cares?
It’s damn exciting.