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Penn State Football: O'Brien In The Zone As Penn State Prepares For Challenge

by on October 22, 2013 3:50 PM

This week is what Bill O'Brien got into coaching for.

The fourth-ranked team in the nation, on the road, undefeated in its last 19 games under head coach Urban Meyer. As they say, "If you can't get up for this game, you don't belong in the sport."

And that kind of feeling was very evident at Bill O'Brien's press conference on Tuesday morning. Joking with reporters, giving insightful answers, on top of his game in a way that is rarely seen during the trials and tribulations of the regular season.

It's hard to blame O'Brien for his cheery nature. NCAA questions are a thing of the past, his team is as healthy as it has ever been, and coming off a four overtime upset victory over Michigan, Penn State will look to make another statement by handing Ohio State its first loss in almost two years. It's everything you could ask for as a coach and a team, perhaps only short of a shot at a national title.

"I think it's a great opportunity," O'Brien said to the gathered media at his Tuesday press conference. "I think about that all the time.  I love ‑‑ I think you guys know that by now about me, when you're playing teams like this, you just think about ‑‑ I'm not very good at articulating this, but Penn State versus Ohio State, and you think about what that means in the history of college football and these two teams playing each other and the tradition of both schools and two great coaching staffs with a lot of good players on both sides of the ball.

"You know, it's a lot of fun.  Game day, that's the best day of the week for me. We're just really looking forward to the challenge. We know it's a huge challenge. I mean, 19 games in a row, No.4 team in the country, we realize that it's a huge, huge challenge. But we look forward to it."

Challenge is the perfect way to put it. Despite all of Ohio State's imperfections, which are few and far between, the Buckeyes are beatable and like all teams, they will eventually lose.

In many ways, for all that O'Brien has been through, the challenge of planning for Ohio State is more of a treat than a chore. Compared to the media tours and PR statements and extracurriculars O'Brien has been a part of following the Jerry Sandusky scandal, this kind of work is a reward that he shouldn't have had to earn.

But with much of that in the rear view mirror O'Brien is just doing what he loves, so it's hard for him to complain about this particular challenge.

And with nothing to complain about, it's easy to have fun.

"Come on, man." O'Brien said laughing when asked about his playing time at Brown within the context of a coaching-related question.

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"Playing days, I really ‑‑ just my least favorite things to do is to talk about myself as a player or myself as anything. But I just loved playing, I loved being on the team. I loved being a teammate with these guys that I played with at Brown. We weren't very good. We were not very good. You can go look it up. We didn't win many games. We were in some close games but we didn't win many."

O'Brien wasn't kidding about his team being bad. From 1990 to 1992 the Bears went 3-27.

"Really, once I got into coaching I found out quickly that I didn't know a lot about football, and so I wouldn't even begin to compare how my playing days affected my ‑‑ I played defense, so I played outside linebacker, and as I gained more weight they moved me inside closer to the ball, put my hand on the ground. I was a defensive tackle in my last year at Brown."

As far as the other famous Brown alumnus -- Joe Paterno -- and the interception record he held at Brown and how it compares to O'Brien's career? "That's the most painful question you could ask me," O'Brien said smiling, "You can ask me anything you want, you can even ask me about Indiana if you want." That remark produced a gust of genuine laughter from a media corps well-versed in the quasi-fake media laugh.

From there O'Brien continued to dive into the game and what really makes him tick: Football.

And when you get O'Brien going about football, it's just time to sit back and learn.

For example, when asked about Ohio State's read option attack, (an increasingly popular offensive concept that relies on baiting the defense and reacting to how the defense responds) O'Brien's response was riddled with football concepts, terminology and language that is best know only to O'Brien.

Bill O'Brien speaks English, but football is his native tongue.

"I don't think there's any offense that's unstoppable, and I don't think there's any defense that can't be ‑‑ that you can't gain yards on." O'Brien said.

 "I think that's an evolution, and it's the game plans and it's the coaching and it comes down to the players' execution on game day. But I do think that when it comes down to stopping a read option ‑‑ you know, read option, that's another thing when I have asked, early in my career at Georgia Tech, we ran the wishbone. We had a quarterback named Joe Hamilton, and we ran basically a no‑huddle wishbone attack at that time, and we mixed other things in there, too. So I got to learn a lot about the veer option, the midline option, and what we used to call the speed option which was out on the perimeter of the defense.

"Now when you look at these spread‑read‑zone teams like you call them, this is just like veer option, it's just like midline option. It's just a little bit different way to get to it. And it always comes down to assignment football; who has the dive; who has the quarterback; who has the pitch if there's a pitch involved; how do you want to play it; do you want to play it with post safety coverage or split safety coverage or man‑to‑man coverage.

"And I think what makes it really, really tough are the guys that are running it. You've got Braxton Miller, you've got this kid out of Baylor. They had 864 yards of offense in one game. So it's these great players that are running these offenses now; that's what makes it really, really difficult to stop."

However this weekend ends up for Penn State, it's apparent more now than ever that Bill O'Brien relishes the opportunity to take on the biggest baddest dog in the conference, and with nothing but football on his mind, he couldn't be any happier.

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Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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