Many national college football observers tried to wrap up Penn State’s season after two games.
The Nittany Lions lost their opener at home to Ohio 24-14, squandering an 11-point lead. Then they fell 17-16 at Virginia on a day they missed four field goals from inside 45 yards and an extra point.
Those difficult setbacks — on top of the crushing NCAA sanctions leveled in late summer from the Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse case — were expected to send Penn State into an immediate downward spiral with no recovery in sight for years.
Except someone forgot to explain that to first-year coach Bill O’Brien.
“It’s never been doom and gloom in here,” he said Tuesday from inside the PSU football complex. “We can’t control how you guys feel. We can’t control how people outside the building feel.”
The feeling now, after five victories in a row, is that O’Brien is a strong candidate for national coach of the year. His stock would rise even more if Penn State (5-2, 3-0) topples No. 9 Ohio State (8-0, 4-0) at home Saturday.
O’Brien said his team never bought into the idea that the program would falter and needs years to recover.
“If you are inside this building,” he said, “you can see we’ve got great kids, we’ve got a hell of a coaching staff and we’ve got great support staff.”
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, whose team gave up an 11-point lead in the fourth quarter of a loss at Penn State, gushed about O’Brien’s work under the circumstances.
“Bill has done a terrific job weathering the storm,” Fitzgerald said. “There was a terrible storm that came from the outside and impacted every young man in that locker room.
“After competing against them, there is no question the leadership in that program and in the locker room is outstanding. The way their upperclassmen have rallied has been very impressive to watch.”
Penn State, which comes to Nebraska on Nov. 10, can still claim the Big Ten Leaders Division trophy, as can Ohio State.
The two schools are ineligible for postseason play under NCAA sanctions, but the league ruled that they can still earn the division title. That could be decided Saturday in what has been dubbed “The Ineligi-Bowl” or “The Bowl of the Banned.”
Penn State has stayed in the hunt, O’Brien said, because nothing really changed after the first two losses.
“It wasn’t like we got blown out,” he said. “We lost to an Ohio team that is undefeated and in the Top 25, so there is no shame in that loss, though we definitely could have played better.
“And we knew we could have played better against Virginia. So there was a lot of frustration, but also a lot of resiliency. It’s a fun team to coach.”
Changes at Minnesota
Nebraska likely won’t have to worry about facing a speedy dual-threat quarterback when Minnesota comes to Memorial Stadium on Nov. 17.
Gophers coach Jerry Kill said Tuesday that two-year starter MarQueis Gray will focus on playing wide receiver the rest of the season as the senior recovers from a nagging ankle sprain.
“That’s where his future is after this,” Kill said. “And he has missed so much time at quarterback. Could we use him in some situations? Certainly. But to play there all the time, he’s not ready or capable.”
With sophomore backup quarterback Max Shortell also ailing (head, shoulder), Kill started true freshman Philip Nelson in a 38-13 loss last week at Wisconsin.
“We made the commitment to pull his redshirt,” Kill said, “and when you do that, you’re going to play him (going forward).”
Nelson is a 6-foot-2, 225-pounder from Mankato, Minn., who one recruiting service listed as the No. 2 pro-style prospect nationally. He is an adequate runner, but not the threat that Gray would be.
In Nelson’s college debut in front of 80,000 at Wisconsin — his father’s alma mater — he completed 13 of 24 passes for 149 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. He also ran 16 times for 67 yards.
“I thought he did a really good job,” Kill said. “It’s kind of amazing you take a true freshman into that and he was very composed.”
As Braxton Miller goes, so goes Ohio State’s offense. The sophomore quarterback has produced 66.8 percent of the Buckeyes’ total offense (2,343 yards) and 48.8 percent of their touchdowns (21).
But that has come at a price.
Miller left the Michigan State game twice after hard hits near the sideline. On Saturday against Purdue, a spinning tackle from behind sent him to the hospital by ambulance for a head and neck examination.
OSU coach Urban Meyer called Miller’s injury more like whiplash, and said he should start this week against Penn State.
“He made a comment to me that he’s never really been hurt,” Meyer said. “It kind of rattled him a little bit, like it would rattle most athletes.”
But will Miller change his run-with-abandon style? Not if Meyer has anything to do with it.
“You let him be and coach him that if you have an opportunity to step out of bounds after a big play, step out of bounds,” Meyer said. “He’s a tough guy. He takes care of himself.”
Quotes of the week
>> Kill to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune on the pep talk he got from Wisconsin Athletic Director Barry Alvarez, who once resurrected a moribund Badger program, after Wisconsin beat the Gophers 38-13 last week:
“There are people who understand we’re going the right way. But it’s always reassuring to hear from people who have been there before.”
>> Chicago Tribune sportswriter Teddy Greenstein tweeting during Nebraska coach Bo Pelini’s appearance on Tuesday’s coaches teleconference:
“Pelini on the Big Ten call is so boring I actually forgot he was still on.”
Stat of the week
This week’s Iowa vs. Northwestern game features the two coaches with the longest tenure in the Big Ten. Kirk Ferentz is in his 14th year and Fitzgerald is in his seventh.
Bits and pieces
Wisconsin tailback Montee Ball now wants his first name to be pronounced MON-tee instead of mon-TAY. He changed it the other way before the season. ... The Badgers carry a 21-game home winning streak into Saturday’s game with Michigan State. Only LSU (22) has a longer string. ... Northwestern running back Venric Mark, who missed most of the fourth quarter against Nebraska after suffering a head injury, is probable this week. But cornerbacks Nick VanHoose and Quinn Evans are doubtful. ... Wisconsin sophomore cornerback Devin Gaulden (torn ACL) is out for the season. ... Injuries have forced Minnesota and Michigan State to start different offensive lines in six of eight games.
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