STATE COLLEGE — Bill O’Brien’s mid-November concern is more about how his Penn State team will play down the stretch — not whether it has something to play for.
The second-year coach has been able to motivate his Nittany Lions time and again after facing adversity. And now — as that has happened again — this is just the way he’s going to handle it.
Like it or not.
“People question, ‘What is there to play for?’ There’s a lot to play for,” O’Brien said Tuesday. “There’s the respect of your opponent, there’s your teammates, there’s the tradition of Penn State football.
“At Penn State, there will never be a question of what is there to play for.”
O’Brien stressed that team morale is not an issue. Instead, inconsistent play throughout a 5-4 season tops his checklist heading into Saturday’s home game against Purdue (1-8).
Season-opening victories over Syracuse and Eastern Michigan have been followed by a weekly dose of losing a game and winning the next.
Penn State yielded 24 first-half points to Minnesota, then held the Gophers scoreless in a 24-10 loss last week. The Nittany Lions are 0-3 in road games.
“We’re coming off a loss,” O’Brien said. “We need to come out and play well. We’ve had an up-and-down year.
“Obviously, we haven’t always coached the best, we haven’t always played the best, but we’ve done some good things, too. The four teams we’ve lost to have a (28-8) record. When we play teams like that, we don’t have a lot of margin for error. We have to come out ready to go and try to play mistake-free football and play as well as we can.”
Turnovers have plagued Penn State throughout the season and the Minnesota game was no different.
Running back Bill Belton fumbled on Penn State’s first offensive play, and quarterback Christian Hackenberg mishandled a snap late in the fourth quarter at Minnesota’s 1-yard line.
“We tell them, ‘when you’re a ball carrier on this team, you’re carrying the hopes and dreams of this football team,’ and that’s what you try to relay to those guys,” O’Brien said. “And the guys ... they don’t mean to fumble. It’s just something that happens and you have to try to correct it and you have to stop doing it.”
The Lions are last in the Big Ten in turnover margin at minus-7, one behind Purdue (minus-6).
“We don’t yell and scream at them,” O’Brien said. “We teach them, we love teaching them, we really enjoy coaching these kids and we just continue to teach them and figure out better ways to coach them.
“It’s a little bit of up and down. We have to try to smooth it out over the next few weeks.”
NOTES: Linebacker Ben Kline is out for the season. O’Brien said Kline will undergo surgery for a torn pectoral muscle which he injured on the second play vs. Minnesota. Kline also must have shoulder surgery, but O’Brien expects him to return for his junior season. ... O’Brien also said Allen Robinson, the country’s fourth-leading receiver with 1,106 yards on 73 catches, “has a shoulder issue” but is expected to play against Purdue. ... O’Brien said Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton will continue to rotate at the running back position. Zwinak rushed for 150 yards against Minnesota; Belton ran for 201 against Illinois the week prior. ... Third-team running back Akeel Lynch sprained a knee against Ohio State but is back in the practice rotation, O’Brien said.