Penn State can’t go to a bowl game this year or the following two. It can’t play for a Big Ten Championship.
At 5-4 and 2-3 in conference, the Nittany Lions could pack it in. But coach Bill O’Brien says that won’t happen. Because of team camaraderie, respect for opponents and the history of Penn State football, the Lions will come to play Saturday against Purdue and the two Saturdays after that against Nebraska and Wisconsin, respectively.
“People question, ‘What is there to play for?’ There’s a lot to play for,” O’Brien said. “At Penn State, there will always be something to play for.”
The Nittany Lions are a three-touchdown favorite over the lowly Boilermakers (1-8, 0-5 Big Ten) this week. They’ve scored just 21 points in their last four games and have given up 152.
One area Penn State is looking to correct is turnover margin. The Nittany Lions rank 108th in the nation in turnover margin per game at -.78. They’ve forced just 12 and given up 19.
O’Brien said while it’s important to not “overcoach it,” he tries to remind his ballcarriers that the hopes and dreams of the team are in their hands.
While the second-year head coach credited opposing defenses for making plays, he added that that’s not always the case. Last Saturday against Michigan, Bill Belton fumbled the exchange from Christian Hackenberg on the first play of the game. Late in the fourth quarter, Hackenberg fumbled the snap near Minnesota’s goal line with the Nittany Lions down 14 points.
“Sometimes, to me,” O’Brien said, “it’s a complete lack of focus.”
Despite welcoming the Big Ten’s cellar-dweller to Beaver Stadium this weekend, there’s no issue of motivation or lack of focus for Penn State.
“We don’t have any problem focusing on Purdue. We respect Purdue,” O’Brien said. “With our guys it’s never a matter of focusing on who the opponent is…It’s about playing the best football we can play and trying to get better from the mistakes that we made last week.”
O’Brien, of course, wants to make sure his team plays the best football it possibly can this weekend and for the rest of the season. In order to help insure that, he’s toning down practices late in the season to keep players fresh.
With about 60 active scholarship players on the roster, keeping guys on the field is imperative.
“As it goes into November here, we’re going to shorten practice a little bit and do some things at a faster pace and not have them out there until 6:30 at night,” O’Brien said. “You’re going to get them back there, get them something to eat and get them studying again. That’s something we’re going to continue to look at and strategize about.”