Guess what: Penn State is doing just fine
Some people suggested Penn State's football team would collapse into a heaping blue-and-white mess this season. Others lobbied for the death penalty to save the program from embarrassing itself entirely on the field.
Nittany Lions quarterback Matt McGloin can still hear the unrelenting scorn now. When the NCAA levied heavy sanctions in July against Penn State in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal, everybody, it seemed, had an opinion as to what it meant for the football program.
McGloin had one, too.
"We refused to believe that we were going to be unsuccessful this season," he said.
Yet after two games, Penn State stood 0-2 for the first time in 11 years. A surprising home loss to Ohio and gut-wrenching last-second defeat at Virginia on a fourth missed field goal supposedly demonstrated just how far the Nittany Lions had fallen.
Or had they?
"We never expected to be 0-2 going into the season no matter what the media said, no matter what the people said," McGloin said. "Unfortunately, it took for us to be 0-2 to realize how special of a season it could be. It may be weird saying that, but it took us to lose those first games to say, ‘Hey this can be a special season.' "
If the notion of Penn State producing a truly special season sounded preposterous to the outside world five games ago, no one is flinching now. The Nittany Lions, winners of five straight games, are one of the hottest teams in college football.
On Saturday, Penn State (5-2, 3-0 in Big Ten play) will host Ohio State (8-0, 4-0) at 5:30 p.m. ET in a matchup of the two best teams in the Leaders Division. Neither team is eligible for the postseason because of NCAA sanctions, but each can claim a trophy as division champions.
Asked where Saturday's game ranks in importance during his career, Penn State senior defensive tackle Jordan Hill didn't hesitate: "Number One."
Penn State's ability to turn its season around certainly has made this week's game more relevant. The strength of the team's defense deserves plenty of credit.
The Nittany Lions rank 13th in the country in scoring defense (15.7 points per game) and have not allowed a single first-quarter point this season. Penn State has outscored its opponents 66-0 in the first quarter and 110-23 in the first half.
During their five-game winning streak, the Nittany Lions have allowed 14 points or fewer in four of those games.
What makes Penn State's defense stand out is the linebacker trio of Michael Mauti, Gerald Hodges and Glenn Carson, who have 161 tackles combined. Hill is fourth on the team with 37 tackles, but he recorded a season-high nine against Iowa last week and earned Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors.
"They're so intense," McGloin said of the team's defense. "They're one of the most prepared defenses week in and week out in the country. They know what to look for, and they play so well together. It's tough to put up points on them."
McGloin has put together an excellent season himself. He leads the Big Ten in passing yards (255.4 per game) and completions (162) and is second in touchdown passes (14) — all with just two interceptions.
He has benefited from an up-tempo, no-huddle offense that first-year coach Bill O'Brien describes as a "NASCAR" pace. Although O'Brien said the scheme is no different than what he ran during previous stops at Georgia Tech, Maryland and with the New England Patriots, it clearly has impacted Penn State positively.
"What I have to do is just manage the game," McGloin said. "The main object of our offense, we don't want to run bad plays. We've been able to do it for the most part. We play smart."
Few could have predicted this type of success from Penn State this season, particularly after the NCAA hit the program with a four-year postseason ban and allowed players to transfer immediately without penalty.
Kicker Anthony Fera left for Texas, running back Silas Redd went to USC, receiver Justin Brown to Oklahoma, linebacker Khairi Fortt to California and quarterback Rob Bolden to LSU. The list goes on.
The effect of losing such quality players could have decimated other teams. But the remaining players banded together around O'Brien.
"When the sanctions came out, I guess here that was a frustrating time for a little bit, for maybe a day," O'Brien said. "The phrase 'doom and gloom' never existed in this building."
O'Brien said he saw a resolve in his players after the team's loss to Virginia. Two days later, Penn State yielded what O'Brien called one of the team's better practices of the year.
"We knew the kind of players we had," said Mauti, who leads the team with 65 tackles. "That's why there wasn't a lull or a drop in confidence or faith in what the team could do. It basically gives credit to the character of the guys on this team and the way we fought back from adversity from the get-go, before our season even started."
Penn State's five-game winning streak has vaulted O'Brien into the discussion for national Coach of the Year honors. He is just the third coach in Penn State history to win five straight games in his first year with the program. The last time that occurred was 1915.
"He spends 18 hours a day in this building," Mauti said. "In my opinion, that's the Coach of the Year right there. There's no question in my mind."
No, Penn State football hasn't collapsed. Far from it. That is why Mauti scoffs at the notion the death penalty would have been good for the program.
"To me, that's pretty much a joke," he said. "It's totally disrespectful, in my opinion. I really don't know who's making those kinds of decisions. I think it's better for me to keep my mouth shut on that one."
His play — and that of the entire Penn State team — says enough.
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