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Penn State Football: Finally, a Reason to Smile, But How Long Can Bill O'Brien Make it Last?

by on September 15, 2012 11:00 PM

There was no right or wrong way to take in this moment. Gerald Hodges and Jordan Hill planned to grab a large orange bucket of ice water. Sam Ficken toiled on the sideline taking one-step practice kicks into a net. Later, with an emotionless face and dressed in sweats, Bill Belton stood 15 yards away from a cluster of his smiling teammates singing the alma mater in the south end zone following a 34-7 victory against Navy.

The coach, meanwhile, in his damp white shirt, was swarmed by his seniors and photographers while making his way to midfield for the postgame handshake. He stayed toward the back among his players, both during the alma mater and while standing in solidarity with the future heroes of this country while their band played.

“He just didn’t want to be in the spotlight for it,” Hill would say after the game. His players would take care of that for him. Bill O’Brien stuck with this team through turmoil for the last nine months, never once wavering on signing onto what has become the toughest coaching job in college football. In fact, he had an addendum to his contract that extended him an additional number of years equal to the duration of the NCAA sanctions. He did not run from adversity; he embraced it. That’s why Michael Zordich, who became one of the featured backs in this offense, presented him with a game ball in the locker room after his first coaching victory. More to the point, that’s why every player was left with a sinking feeling last week at Virginia, another week gone by without any retribution for being rendered irrelevant for the next four years by the NCAA.

“He’s been through a ton so far since he’s taken the head job here,” said quarterback Matt McGloin, who had the idea to dump water on O’Brien. “We have his back 110 percent, and the support is there for him. It’s definitely been frustrating for us and for him.”

This afternoon was about retribution. A quarterback mired in criticism for the last two years continued to play at an accelerated level, turning in a QB rating of 217 on Saturday, his best since he had a QB rating of 249 against Eastern Michigan in 2011. Little thought is needed for why when you consider the coach ran one of the most prolific offenses in the NFL last season. O’Brien told anybody who listened to his weekly radio show Thursday night to get off McGloin’s back. He was not the problem through two games.

A defense that squandered second-half leads the previous two weeks played its most complete game, forcing four more turnovers, including a fumble scooped up and returned 74 yards by backup linebacker Mike Hull, the fourth linebacker on this team too good to keep off the field. Third-down defense, the bugaboo for the unit in both its losses, was successful 11 of 15 times, a marked improvement even if Navy’s run-based triple-option attack does not take advantage of the defense’s weakest area.

The running back situation led to Michael Zordich being as involved in the offense as he’s ever been before. He carried 11 times for 50 yards, caught two passes for 25 yards and was even split out wide in a new personnel package.

“Break it down on John Cappelletti — I mean Zordich,” O’Brien barked after he addressed the team in the locker room. There was fire in O’Brien’s voice during that speech but also realism.

“Great job, but that’s just one,” he said. “That’s only one.” He hopes Saturday’s effort will get the ball rolling toward another win, and another, and another. He must hope his successes and fortunes in 2012 can sustain the onslaught of poaching from opposing coaches for the next 11 months.

It started Saturday, his first victory coinciding with a sophomore receiver’s breakout game in a breakout season sure to garner the attention of the heavyweights of the sport. And it will coincide with a day that started with a few hundred people rallying on the steps of the most famous building on the campus asking the university’s governing body to resign. There is reason to feel good again about Penn State. The rest is out of the coach's hands.

Nate Mink covers Penn State football and news for He's on Twitter as @MinkNate.
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