Penn State Football: Learning Now And Winning Later
They say what doesn't kill you only makes you stronger.
Sure, a 63-14 loss to Ohio State may very well make O'Brien and his squad feel like an early Sunday running of The Walking Dead, but the Nittany Lions are still in fact alive and kicking following a game they would like to quickly forget.
Even so, there is plenty for Penn State to take away from Saturday night's shellacking and if the Nittany Lions are going to get better, there is plenty to learn too.
"I know you guys give me a hard time because I say I have to watch the film and then I don't talk about it on Tuesday," O'Brien said late Saturday night of his weekly press conferences. "But let me watch the film and I'll tell you all about it on Tuesday. The mostly bad and the some good that we did. Write down all those questions and bring them with you on Tuesday."
A chance to amend for all the bad will come next Saturday when the Nittany Lions take on Illinois, a game in which Penn State opened up as a 10-point favorite. Losing to Ohio State was not a surprise, but if the blowout loss has crumpled the foundation and confidence of this particular Nittany Lion team, then there is no safe bet when it comes to predicting the remainder of the season.
Penn State's 18-year-old starting quarterback, Christian Hackenberg, learned about playing on the road in the Big Ten. In the first real road test of his collegiate career Hackenberg found out the hard way that a single mistake can mean the end of a drive. The true freshman looked poised all night or at least for as long as he played, but as the Buckeyes pulled away, Penn State's offensive efforts effectively became more and more of a formality.
Hackenberg threw two interceptions, one thanks to a misread, and one due in large part to a falling receiver after he ball had been thrown. It's not so much the stats that matter in a game like this but the mental and physical survival of the ordeal. Hackenberg seems to have come out healthy at least in the mental aspect which aside from a serious injury, is the best news Penn State can take out of those 60 minutes of punishment. There is little doubt he had to deal with nerves in the early going, but the situation as a whole didn't make Hackenberg a worse quarterback than he is, and that counts for something.
Bill O'Brien learned something about his team. Penn State's second year head coach can't put too much stock in a beating like this without appreciating Ohio State's talent level. But even so, with 61 scholarship players and a mixed bag of experience and talent, the Nittany Lions are young. They are seemingly average overall -- aside from a handful of players who are working to keep things afloat. How O'Brien handles this realization is something we may never know, but it seems that the us-against-the-world narrative has taken a back seat to making the most out of a bad situation.
Fans learned that while their Nittany Lions may have an admirable amount of heart and fight, they are in the end, what others said they would be. They are a team crippled by sanctions, relying on a herculean effort to knock off a team fighting for a national title in front of 105,000 fans invested in that same goal. It's going to stay that way for the immediate future and nights like Saturday are going to be the by-product from time to time. Swallowing that pill -- one which admits that your team is in fact middle of the road -- can be hard, but it's a necessary step in maintaining a rational view.
The good news for Penn State is that the next three opponents on the schedule are a combined 2-8 in conference play. Despite Saturday's performance the Nittany Lions aren't a lost cause and there is talent to be found on both sides of the ball. If Penn State is destined to grow as a program under O'Brien, losses like Saturday's have to be viewed more as a learning tool and less as a setback.
How much was learned though won't be known until next three weeks from now.