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Wednesday, October 10, 2012
5 biggest surprises so far this season

By Josh Moyer

Bill O'Brien
Bill O'Brien has Penn State on a four-game winning streak going into the bye.

No one would have blamed Bill O'Brien if his Penn State team managed to win just two games to this point. No one would have cursed his name if the offense struggled or regressed from last season.

But, somehow, some way, O'Brien and the Nittany Lions have tossed aside low expectations and won four straight heading into this bye week.

NittanyNation takes a look at the biggest surprises so far in this surprising season:

1. Dynamic passing offense.
Most assumed the Nittany Lions would pass more this season, but no one expected Matt McGloin to be in the discussion as this season's top Big Ten quarterback. And no one thought Allen Robinson, a third-string wideout last season, would be on pace for one of the best receiving seasons in school history.

O'Brien's teaching ability and playbook have energized this offense. Despite countless hits over the offseason, Penn State has somehow managed to average nearly eight points more a game this season. For the first time in maybe 20 years, this offense is exciting to watch.

2. Re-adjusting the roster and having unknown players contribute.
Maybe roster re-adjustments shouldn't have been a surprise, but the players who have stepped up have really come out of nowhere. McGloin said two weeks ago the old staff didn't give Robinson a fair chance last season -- but O'Brien's certainly giving players a fair shake this year. Zach Zwinak, a third-string fullback last season, has rushed for back-to-back 100-yard games. Derek Day, a former walk-on, has risen to backup status. Matt Lehman has driven the tight ends' performance for a few games. And true freshman Steven Bench has become the No. 2 quarterback.

Offering jobs based on seniority is no longer the norm. Paul Jones, Kevin Haplea, Curtis Dukes, etc. were in line to see more playing time this season -- but O'Brien buried them on the depth chart because of lackluster performances. Two left the program. But the team has shown it's moved on without much trouble.

3. Recruiting success.
The reason many analysts and reporters wrote off Penn State's future was because of the recruiting handicaps caused by the sanctions. Penn State can sign no more than 15 prospects the next four seasons, and the four-year bowl ban was expected to turn off the big-name recruits. Instead, O'Brien was still able to convince some of the country's top high school talent to remain loyal: ESPN's No.1-rated quarterback Christian Hackenberg (Fork Union, Va./Fork Union), ESPN's No. 1-rated tight end Adam Breneman (Camp Hill, Pa./Cedar Cliff) and ESPN's No. 10 offensive guard Brendan Mahon (Randolph, N.J./Randolph).

Sure, the Nittany Lions have watched five recruits decommit since the sanctions. They haven't been immune to the penalties, but there are still plenty of 2014 players on the ESPN Watch List that are interested in Happy Valley -- even some from as far away as California, such as linebacker Dwight Williams (Gardena, Calif./Junipero Serra).

4. Continued struggle with special teams.
Not all the surprises have been welcome. Special teams was expected to drop off a bit with Anthony Fera's transfer to Texas ... but two missed extra points? One-of-5 field goals against Virginia? No one could have guessed in the preseason that Penn State's kicker would statistically be one of the worst in the NCAA.

But the special-teams struggles don't stop with Sam Ficken. Punter Alex Butterworth has shown great inconsistency; he has the same odds of shanking a punt 15 yards as he does knocking one 50. He's looked better in the past two games, but he still has a long way to go. And, of course, there's been other struggles; Northwestern returned one of Butterworth's best punts 75 yards for a touchdown.

5. Transparency.
Offensive guard John Urschel was asked what was most different about this year's team. His answer? Transparency. O'Brien isn't afraid to tell players what they don't want to hear but need to hear. He's been honest with his players about their roles; something both McGloin and Stephon Morris said was not a given with the old staff. They said the team feels now as if it can approach O'Brien anytime for immediate feedback or to ask questions.

O'Brien has opened up some practices to the media and has made a visible effort to be more open with this team. The identity of the Nittany Lions is clearly different this year, and transparency is a big reason why.