NCAA FOOTBALL: Penn State's O'Brien looking for answers after loss
Bill O’Brien makes reading stories about Penn State as much a part of his routine as studying game film.
Unlike many coaches in all sports who swear they never read websites or newspapers — often while complaining about something that was written — O’Brien called it his duty to keep tabs on headline news about the program. Even after a loss.
O’Brien must have wanted to toss some papers in the recycling bin after Penn State’s 34-31 loss to Central Florida. The Nittany Lions (2-1) wasted another solid offense outing with a defensive effort.
On Saturday, they’ll try to bounce back vs. Kent State (1-2).
Like any other faithful fan, O’Brien tries to read about a half dozen stories a day about the state of Penn State football, even if the news isn’t always good.
“It’s part of my job as head football coach,” he said Tuesday, “to know what’s going on. Not just in that little office where that film room is.”
Then he read stories that praised freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg and some that questioned what was wrong with a defense unable to make key stops.
It’s up to O’Brien to find the answers before the Golden Flashes hit Happy Valley.
Penn State’s offense continues to flourish under O’Brien’s pro style sets. Hackenberg completed 21 of 28 passes for 262 yards, Allen Robinson had nine catches for 143 yards and Zach Zwinak rushed for 128 yards and scored three touchdowns as the Nittany Lions put up 455 yards of total offense.
That should be enough to win, but it’s not enough when the defense can’t make stops.
As great as the numbers are, Hackenberg has mixed the sensational with the head-scratching as he finds his way as a major college quarterback.
“I expect him to complete every pass,” O’Brien said. “But 70 percent is a good percentage. Any time you complete over 70 percent of your passes, a lot of things are happening well there. When I call a pass, I don’t expect it to be incomplete, that’s for sure. I expect it to be completed.
“It’s a high standard.”
O’Brien and Hackenberg met Monday to break down the film from the loss and get ready for the Golden Flashes. O’Brien told Hackenberg he needed to eliminate about six or seven mistakes a game to truly blossom into a top-notch quarterback.
He has completed 66 of 92 passes for 851 yards and four touchdowns in his first three starts. Three of his four scores have been 45 yards or longer.
“He’s a self-confident kid,” O’Brien said. “He’s just got a really good demeanor. He’s sure of himself. He’s a calm guy, which is great for me, because I’m not a calm guy.”
But Hackenberg is only 18 and of few true freshman quarterbacks to ever start for Penn State. He’s still learning the offense and how to handle his emotions, whether it’s staying calm in front of a loud crowd or forgetting about mistakes and moving to the next opportunity.
Those are veteran tricks and he’ll get there with time. And O’Brien is willing to let him grow.
He’ll need some help from a defense that struggled after a solid two-game start. Central Florida jumped to a 31-17 lead and finished with 507 yards, the kind of numbers that are going to win many college football games.
O’Brien defended his use of the “thud” method of defensive practice drills, where players are hit, but not tackled.
“It has nothing to do with thud,” he said. “There are teams in the country that all basically practice with thud. It’s very rare teams go live anymore.”
With Indiana following Kent State, the Nittany Lions are still in position to be 4-1 when No. 15 Michigan rolls into town next month.
Loss to the Knights or not, O’Brien will remain optimistic about what’s ahead at Penn State, and is a stout defender of the Nittany Lions fans, even as attendance at Beaver Stadium continues to dip well below the capacity.
“I would love to thank each and every one of them personally, if I could,” he said. “But I can’t.”