We’ve come to the halfway point in the most unusual season in Penn State football history.
It seems like an appropriate time to take stock of the Nittany Lion program.
Here are three things that we’ve learned so far:
—1. Bill O’Brien seems like the right man for the job.
Since Day 1, he’s said and done all the right things under tremendously trying circumstances. All of that great public relations work would mean little, however, if the Lions were performing poorly on the field.
After a stumbling 0-2 start, however, Penn State seems to be steadily improving — as evidenced by four straight wins, including a rousing 39-28 fourth-quarter comeback victory on Saturday over previously unbeaten Northwestern. The Wildcats came in ranked No. 24.
O’Brien has also shown no fear, especially when it comes to play-calling. Fourth-down gambles don’t seem to scare him at all, and the fans are eating it up.
In the wake of unprecedented NCAA sanctions in the offseason, O’Brien also managed to hold the program together when it could have spun wildly into the college football gutter. He did lose a few standout players to immediate transfers (Silas Redd, Justin Brown, Anthony Fera), but for the most part, the Nittany Lions stood by their school and their new coach. That’s a testament to O’Brien and those players.
Some experts are already boosting O’Brien for Big Ten Coach of the Year honors. That seems like a stretch after just two conference games. But there’s no denying that O’Brien’s work to date has been impressive.
—2. These Nittany Lions are genuinely fun to watch.
They may not be the most talented bunch in Penn State history. Precious few of them will likely earn a living in the NFL.
But man, they play with fire and they play the game the right way.
O’Brien takes every opportunity to heap praise on his senior class. O’Brien and his PSU seniors seem to have developed a special bond. That’s amazing considering they didn’t even know each other eight months ago.
Some of the Lions’ passion likely comes from an “Us-Against-the-World” mentality in the wake of the Sandusky Scandal. Some of it also comes from the fact that there will be no postseason games this season, or for the next few years. Therefore, the Lions can pour all of their heart and soul into the regular-season contests.
One has to wonder if the Lions can maintain that passion for six more games. That can be a hard thing to do. Most teams, sooner or later, come up empty. But so far, the Lions have consistently come ready to play.
—3. Recruiting, as expected, will be exceedingly difficult.
Since the NCAA sanctions came down, the Lions lost a few of their top recruits from their 2013 class.
And the new recruits they’ve attracted since then have generally been low-level prospects.
Penn State may also find it difficult to hold onto to some of the top verbal commitments they landed before the NCAA penalties came down, especially four-star Virginia quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who has been sending some mixed signals about his PSU commitment. He has said he remains committed to Penn State, but he has also said he wants to see how this PSU season plays out before signing on the dotted line in February. Those ambiguous statements have the Blue-and-White faithful on edge.
Losing Hackenberg would be a major blow — and not just because he’s a highly-rated player at a vital position. Losing the high-profile Hackenberg would also send a negative message to other potential recruits. It could have a domino effect. Penn State will have to play well and work hard to keep Hackenberg on board, because you can be sure that many other national powers will be calling, texting and visiting him.
O’Brien has done his best to publicize Penn State’s positives — its great facilities, its tremendous tradition and its national television exposure. O’Brien’s NFL-style offense and NFL contacts are also selling points. But given the severe sanctions, it’s still a very tough recruiting job.
In the final analysis, the Penn State football program under O’Brien is a work in progress — for this season and far beyond. In fact, this will likely be a long, hard slog for the next decade or so.
But after six games in this most unusual of Penn State seasons, there are reasons for hope. And at this point, that’s all Nittany Nation could have hoped for.