Penn State Nittany Lions: Silas Redd

Big Ten Friday mailblog

October, 4, 2013
10/04/13
4:00
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Finishing out the week before an exciting slate of Big Ten games. Don't forget to follow us on Twitter, especially on Saturdays.

Let's get to that mail ...

Mikey from Seattle writes: Great piece on B1G football revenue not translating to championships. I don't disagree with Dave Brandon's comment that football success is driven by things like tradition, culture, momentum, luck, recruiting, and consistency. However, if you look at all BCS National Champs, all but one (Oklahoma in 2000) come from traditional high school "hotbeds" -- Southeast, Texas, California, Ohio. (Note: most of the losing teams come from these areas, too.) So why doesn't the B1G use its significant revenue and resources to develop THE best youth/HS football programs in the country? While B1G can't influence demographic trends, it seems like it would be in their best long-term interests, increase athletic revenues, decrease escalating recruiting expenses, elevate conference perception to invest in their cash cow while giving back to their communities.

Adam Rittenberg: Some interesting thoughts, Mikey. Keep in mind that the Big Ten distributes almost all of its revenue to the schools, which all would have to be on board with such a program to make it work. Most of these schools have athletic departments that are losing money or receiving subsidies, so it would be hard for them to part with revenue just for the off chance that it boosts one sport (football). I also wonder how much a college athletic conference could affect the way high school/youth programs do things in an entire region of the country. Would we see more spring football programs? More 7-on-7 football like there is in Texas and Florida? I think the better investment is for recruiting the South and Southeast. Big Ten schools must devote more of their recruiting budget toward those areas of the country and hire and pay assistants who can pluck some good players from states such as Georgia, Texas and Florida year after year.


Jim from New Jersey writes: I do not say this is the only difference between the Big Ten and the SEC, but someone needs to be brave enough to say it in the press and no one does! The quality and type of kid that goes to an SEC school is not the same quality of a Big Ten kid academically. Bottom line. The SEC schools have much looser admission programs and standards and the kids are not the same. Bottom line, the Big Ten chooses to not take the same type of player. If the Big Ten wants a crystal ball, they need to lower admission standards.

Adam Rittenberg: Jim, I've alluded to this before, and I agree that on the whole, Big Ten schools have tougher admissions standards for football players than SEC schools. But there are enough elite athletes with strong academic profiles to win at the national level. Look at what Stanford has done and continues to do. A lot of the SEC's top players had Big Ten offers, so they would have been admitted to Big Ten schools but chose to go elsewhere. Big Ten fans often cite admission standards and oversigning as two big differences between the Big Ten and the SEC. I agree they're factors, but the Big Ten's larger issue, in my view, is more strategic. Big Ten schools must continually examine where they're investing time and energy in recruiting and how they're branding themselves to recruits.


Megan from Columbus, Ohio, writes: Hi Adam, love the work that you and Brian do! You have helped me discover what I want to do when I go to college. Anyway, I was wondering if you think Braxton Miller will be coming back for his senior year or not? Since his injury has him out of the Heisman talk (for now), do you think that will play a part of his decision?

Adam Rittenberg: Thanks, Megan. Is it too late to talk you out of it? Kidding, kidding. I expect Miller to return next season and continue to develop his game. Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman told me this summer that Miller likely won't reach his full potential until the 2014 season, as he continues to evolve as a passer and as a decision-maker. He's not considered a top NFL draft prospect at quarterback right now, but he could become one depending on how he improves. Unless you're a clear first-round pick or play a position like running back with a short shelf-life because of injury risk, you probably should stay in school. I believe Miller will.


Ryan from Crooksville, Ohio, writes: All right, of all the things people could criticize the last few weeks about Michigan, why is it that the worst criticisms are about the defense? I mean, honestly, if our quarterback wasn't giving away seven points a game (and that's just the points the other teams got directly from him) and setting the opponents up in great field position a lot, Michigan's points allowed would conceivably be a lot less than they are. I honestly don't understand why the defense is taking as much heat as some people are giving it. They make key stops when they need to and they seem to play better red-zone defense than any other team I've seen this year. And as a Wolverines fan living in Buckeye country, I have to hear it more than most. Hoping to get your thoughts on it.

Adam Rittenberg: Ryan, I guess we've been reading/hearing different things about Michigan, because Devin Gardner's turnover issues have been the top story line about the Wolverines the past two weeks. Every radio show I've been on has asked what's wrong with No. 7/98 and whether he can reclaim the form he showed against Notre Dame. Michigan's defense has been OK -- not great, but adequate -- and hardly the team's biggest issue. I'm a little concerned about the lack of star power on the Wolverines' defense. Who will be the reliable playmakers game in and game out? Linebacker Jake Ryan could be that guy when he returns from injury later this month.


Doc from Phoenix writes: Adam, as an unapologetic Huskers fan and forever the optimist, I am curious about your current best-case scenario for Nebraska the rest of the way out. I see the best case for the Huskers as running the regular season table (despite some shaky defensive performances) and losing to OSU in the Big Ten championship. If that scenario plays out, do you see Nebraska getting an at-large bid to a BCS bowl? Whether or not OSU makes the National Championship game, Nebraska would be 11-2 with their only losses being to Ohio State and UCLA (a potential top-10 team). I could see the Rose Bowl reaching for Nebraska if Ohio State made the National Championship game to keep the Big Ten presence in the game, but I have doubt if other BCS bowl would feel the same way with the national perception of the Nebraska program being down of late. Given the reaching "best-case scenario," where would you put the Huskers come December/January?

Adam Rittenberg: Doc, while I could see Nebraska running the table, I highly doubt it. The Huskers crumbled against the only really good team they've faced so far, and their November schedule features Northwestern, Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State and a clearly improved Iowa team on Black Friday. While I expect Nebraska to beat Illinois on Saturday, Purdue next week and Minnesota on Oct. 26, the Huskers will have to elevate their play consistently in November for one of the more brutal stretches any Big Ten team will face. Can they win out? Sure. But I don't see it. If the scenario plays out as you present it, a lot would depend on if there are other Big Ten teams eligible for BCS at-large selection. We've seen in the past that the league title game loser often is in a worse sport for at-large selection than a team that finishes the season, say, 10-2 on a roll.


Rob from Morristown, N.J., writes: Adam, is Michigan State's defense REALLY as good as you and Brian make them out to be on a weekly basis (in every one one of your blog posts that mentions MSU, you talk about their stellar defense). Is it possible that their very good defensive numbers are due to the fact that they have played an FCS team, two of the worst offensive FBS teams in the country in USF and Western Michigan (ranked Nos. 121 and 122 in scoring offense, respectively) and a ND team starting a senior QB who lost the starting job to a freshman last season and lost their top two rushers off last year's BCS team? Maybe the "hype" is based off of last year's squad and is not necessarily indicative of this year's defense? I admit I have not watched much MSU football, but I think there is a good chance we realize the MSU defense isn't actually THAT good once they start playing some of the better offensive B1G teams. Your witness...

Adam Rittenberg: Rob, you make a lot of fair points here. Michigan State has faced some of the weaker offensive teams in the country. But to this point, the Spartans can only be evaluated on who they face, and they're showing the suffocating play we've grown accustomed to from that unit. If this defense hadn't been among the nation's elite the past two seasons, we're probably not having this discussion. So yes, past performance plays a role because Michigan State has established a culture of elite defense that appears, albeit against weak competition, to be continuing this season. Context is important here, but I also should be careful not to overvalue Michigan State's defense until it faces better offense. But I really like the personnel and the coaching the Spartans have on that side of the ball. We'll certainly learn more in the coming weeks.


Chris from Middleton, Wis., writes: Adam, which do you believe in when it comes to Wisconsin losing close games and their continued battle to go from good to great? 1) It shows how difficult it is to compete with the likes of Michigan and Ohio State's established programs. 2) Wisconsin is more closely scrutinized for penalties thus their success is handcuffed. 3) The gods are critical of football in general at Wisconsin. 4) Wisconsin players are overachievers that have reached their own personal mountain top. 5) If Wisconsin played ASU and Ohio State at home this year, they would be headed for the national championship game.

Adam Rittenberg: Is there an option 6? If so, I would go with Wisconsin being a team not built to play from behind. The Badgers are a methodical, power-driven offense focused on the run game. They bleed clock and their opponents' will by pounding away with huge offensive linemen and talented ball carriers. But they're not a team that runs the two-minute drill well. They don't have enough at receiver -- a problem for several years. The Arizona State game was an odd and unfortunate case because the officials totally botched the call at the end. The football gods aren't out to get Wisconsin, and the Badgers have shown they can win big games. But they're a team better off grabbing the lead and holding on than mounting a late comeback.


Andrew from Hilldale, Mich., writes: Recently there was an ESPN video posted on the blog suggesting that Ohio State's rep has been hurt by weak conference competition. One of the analysts also argued that OSU has beaten up the B1G only to get "slaughtered" in big games against faster nonconference opponents. Is that really a fair argument considering that the last two big bowl games they played -- the Rose Bowl against a very fast Oregon and forfeited Sugar Bowl against the SEC's very own Arkansas -- were solid wins on the field. It seems to me that, since the 2011 Sugar Bowl, they haven't really played any big nonconference games, and certainly none that would count as slaughters.

Adam Rittenberg: Unfortunately, Ohio State still gets painted as a bad big-game team because of the losses to Florida and LSU in the 2007 and 2008 BCS championship games. It's a lazy argument, quite frankly, because those games occurred more than half a decade ago, which is an eternity in college football. If you want to argue that Ohio State won't get into the national title game because the Big Ten is so weak, that's fine. The Big Ten has done little to change its national perception this season. But don't blame it on games that happened so long ago, just because you weren't entertained for the national championship. Vacated wins or not, Ohio State has won its past two big games, as you point out. And I expect the Buckeyes to be a better team than they are now when early January rolls around. Whether they make it to Pasadena for the big one remains to be seen.


Joe from Central PA writes: Hi, Adam. I'm a big PSU fan and although I didn't blame Silas Redd one bit for the decision he made to transfer, you have to wonder if he's second-guessing that now. If he was looking for a pro football career, I would think B'OB was more the coach to help him with that. It's a shame ... all of it really because I believe Silas is a nice/good kid. I really do hope he makes it to the NFL if that is what he wants to do.

Adam Rittenberg: Joe, I couldn't agree more about Silas being a really nice guy, and I still expect him to go on and have a good NFL career. But you have to wonder whether he'd be better off at Penn State, working in O'Brien's pro-style offense. Look at what Penn State has done with a running back like Zach Zwinak, who isn't as naturally gifted as Redd. From a coaching standpoint, he definitely took a step back by leaving Penn State for USC. Then again, it's hard to blame a guy for going to a team that entered the 2012 season with national title aspirations.


John from New York writes: Do you think that the reason that Venric Mark has been out these last three weeks relates solely to his injury? Pat Fitzgerald has seemed a little shifty when discussing Mark's status, including an assertion that Mark was "day-to-day" about one hour before the kickoff against Maine. I can see Fitzgerald wanting to spring Mark on OSU, depriving them of video of Mark from this season.

Adam Rittenberg: John, Mark never was going to play against Maine, although he probably could have. Northwestern wanted to get his hamstring issue as close to 100 percent as possible before the Big Ten season kicked off against Ohio State. Once the Wildcats got through the Syracuse game, they really didn't need Mark to go 4-0, although it would have been nice for him and Kain Colter to get some more game reps together. It will be interesting to see how much the Colter-Mark zone read game can boost Northwestern's offense against the Buckeyes.

Patience needed in PSU's QB race

August, 8, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Jesse James shook his head when asked about the quarterback competition.

He offered a blanket statement of "they're both doing good" before attempting to move on to the next question.

"What's the question you're most tired of today?" asked one reporter.

"The quarterback situation," the tight end said with a slight smile.

[+] EnlargeTyler Ferguson
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicTyler Ferguson has the edge in Penn State's QB battle, but will he hold off Christian Hackenberg?
Defensive backs, offensive linemen, wide receivers -- everyone was posed questions about Christian Hackenberg and Tyler Ferguson, the fresh-faced signal-callers who are battling for a starting job. No quarterback was made available to the media on a cool Thursday morning, so their teammates took the brunt of the prodding.

Did players prefer one quarterback to another? What was it like catching a Hackenberg pass compared to a Ferguson one? Who's harder to read? Who's the better leader? Better yet, who's going to start?

Bill O'Brien had an answer for fans and media alike after three practices: "Just hold your horses."

"They're both talented guys and I just want them to continue to grasp what we're trying to do and play the next play," O'Brien continued, adding he might -- or might not -- name a starter in about two weeks. "You're going to make mistakes. Matt McGloin made mistakes, but he's tough. He was resilient -- and that's what these guys need to do."

No position this season is more important than quarterback. McGloin helped lead a seemingly patchwork offense that averaged 29 points a game last season, a touchdown and field goal better than the previous season with such stars as Justin Brown and Silas Redd.

And with nearly the entire offense returning this season, big things are expected out of the new quarterback, whoever it is. So, not surprisingly, quarterback was the big storyline Thursday -- and it'll continue to be the big story until O'Brien does finally name the starter.

A pack of reporters followed the red jerseys like ants to a picnic basket during an afternoon practice. Neither appeared to throw a pass longer than 15 yards during the 45-minute open portion of practice, and few observations could really be made.

Hackenberg showed a strong arm during the short passes and made a nice roll-out throw at one point, garnering praise from O'Brien. But both quarterbacks also drew the ire of the head coach at different times.

"This is a review!" O'Brien yelled after one miscue.

The most surprising moment from Thursday's media day likely came from O'Brien himself. Last season's ESPN coach of the year acknowledged, after three practices, that Ferguson held the edge. That in itself wasn't surprising -- after all, Ferguson enrolled early while Hackenberg did not -- but it came as a slight shock that O'Brien chose to share that tidbit.

Ferguson could use the confidence boost after missing about a month of voluntary workouts and leaving the door a bit more open for Hackenberg.

Cornerback Jordan Lucas didn't pretend Ferguson had no cobwebs to shake off.
"That's with anything, though," Lucas added. "Like if you're coming back from a month of not interviewing anybody, you need to get your questions right and juice yourself back up a little bit. So, coming from a month off, you need to shake a bit off.

"But it's just like riding a bike. It never leaves."

Hopefully, for Ferguson, that comes back within the next two weeks. O'Brien said he's been impressed with just how quickly Hackenberg has improved from one practice to the next so, although Ferguson holds the edge, that definitely doesn't mean he's a lock to become the starter.

O'Brien will face questions about his quarterbacks every time he speaks with fans or the media. Ditto for any Penn State players. But, for now, the quarterbacks need to show one characteristic: resilience.

And for everybody else? Patience.

Position review: Running back 

November, 27, 2012
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Zach Zwinak, Daimion StaffordBruce Thorson/US PRESSWIREZach Zwinak was a huge surprise at running back, saving the Nittany Lions and producing after more heralded players faltered in the featured role.
Every day over the next two weeks, NittanyNation will take a closer look at each position and how Penn State fared over the course of the season.

Up today: Running back.

If one position symbolized Bill O'Brien's "next man up" philosophy, it would be this one. Bill Belton started the season as the main tailback, a sophomore who was expected to get 20-25 touches a game. Then he went down, and on came an ineffective Derek Day.

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Five lessons from the week that was in Big Ten football.

1. The Ineligibles overachieved under great coaches: We won't see Ohio State or Penn State until next fall, but both teams went out on positive notes to end seasons in which they overachieved. Aside from die-hard Buckeyes believers, who expected Ohio State to go 12-0 and record just the sixth unbeaten, untied season in team history? Even fewer people expected Penn State to go 8-4 after a tumultuous offseason that featured the exodus of running back Silas Redd and other key players. And when the Lions started 0-2, most folks wrote them off. But Bill O'Brien and his team never lost faith and surged through most of the Big Ten season. It was fitting that kicker Sam Ficken, whose struggles at Virginia led to Penn State's loss, had the game-winning field goal Saturday as the Lions beat Wisconsin in overtime. O'Brien exceeded all expectations in his first season as a head coach, recording the most wins ever by a first-year Lions boss. Will he be Big Ten Coach of the Year? The only other worthy candidate is Urban Meyer, who took a seven-loss Buckeyes team with significant depth issues and transformed it into one of the nation's best.

[+] EnlargeBill O'Brien
Evan Habeeb/US PresswireBill O'Brien faced tough questions from prospective recruits, but the Penn State coach and his staff kept a top-25 recruiting class together.
2. Michigan isn't really back: Sure, the Wolverines have dug themselves out from the Rich Rodriguez-created crater, and they had a charmed season end in a Sugar Bowl title last season. But in terms of beating really good teams, the ones that signify Michigan once again has a place among the nation's elite, Brady Hoke's crew is still looking for a breakthrough. Michigan won a respectable eight games, but its four losses in the regular season -- Alabama, Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State -- came against the best four teams it played. The Wolverines were extremely fortunate to beat a good Northwestern team and a mediocre Michigan State squad on their home field. While it was nice to end the losing streak against Ohio State last season, Michigan beat the worst Buckeyes team we've seen in more than a decade. The offense still seems hamstrung in some ways by the Denard Robinson era, though the emergence of Devin Gardner is promising for the future. There are signs Michigan is close, and the renaissance on defense under Hoke and Greg Mattison can't be denied. But it'll take a bit longer for Michigan to truly claim it is back, although a Jan. 1 bowl victory against an SEC foe would help.

3. Rex Burkhead still can make an impact: This hasn't been the season the Nebraska senior running back envisioned, but he can still play a major role in how it turns out for Big Red. Burkhead returned to the field in the second half Friday against Iowa after Nebraska's offense stumbled and fell behind 7-3. In his first appearance since Oct. 20, Burkhead racked up 69 yards and Nebraska's only touchdown on 16 carries. He might not be 100 percent, but he showed the skills that make him beloved in the Cornhusker State, particularly on a grinding 9-yard run to pick up a first down after Nebraska was pinned inside its own 1-yard line early in the fourth quarter. Nebraska had hoped to get through the Iowa game without Burkhead, but when the team needed him, he delivered. He likely will play a bigger role this week against Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. Burkhead had 86 rush yards against the Badgers in the Big Ten opener, the only full game he has played this season. He could be the boost Nebraska needs to win its first league title since 1999 and possibly win the Rose Bowl, too.

4. Danny Hope's players didn't quit on him: Many Purdue fans have seen enough of fourth-year coach Danny Hope, but Hope has plenty of allies in his locker room. The Boilers easily could have quit after dropping their first five Big Ten games -- four blowouts (three at home) plus the heartbreaker at Ohio State. Some teams projected to do much more would have gone in the tank. But Purdue rallied behind Hope and gutsy quarterback Robert Marve, who played despite a torn anterior cruciate ligament, and won its final three games to secure a bowl berth. The product rarely looked pretty, and even Saturday's Bucket game against Indiana featured some bang-your-head-against-the-wall moments. But Purdue's players never stopped fighting and will head somewhere warm for the holidays. Whether Hope joins them remains to be seen, but he deserves some credit for keeping the team afloat during such a difficult stretch.

5. Bowl practices will be crucial for Big Ten teams: We don't know the bowl matchups yet, but they will be daunting for the Big Ten, which will be without two of its best teams (Ohio State and Penn State) in the postseason. For the league to avoid another bad bowl performance, several teams must take significant steps during bowl practices. Michigan State has the defense and the running back (Le'Veon Bell) to win its bowl game, but it needs quarterback Andrew Maxwell and a young receiving corps to develop. Coach Mark Dantonio hinted this week that his offense needed an update to keep up with the times. Maybe that can start next month in earnest. Minnesota has to get healthy and re-establish its offensive identity behind true freshman quarterback Philip Nelson, who will benefit from the 15 practices. Wisconsin also will have a chance to iron out its offensive issues, while a young Northwestern team that made major strides this fall must make another before facing what should be a heavily favored SEC foe in Florida. Michigan also gets some extra time to figure out its vision on offense with Gardner and Robinson.

Season shows PSU is still a top program

November, 24, 2012
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Michael Mauti bowed his head slightly and choked back tears before Saturday's game. Jordan Hill embraced a line of fans once he stepped off the blue bus.

[+] EnlargePenn State 2012
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarPenn State honored the efforts of this season's team by etching the number 2012 on the facade of Beaver Stadium's private boxes.
Seniors lingered on the field and tugged one last time on the victory bell -- shortly after Bill O'Brien whispered a Hail Mary and the team watched Kyle French push a 44-yard field goal wide left in a 24-21 overtime win. Before, during and after the game, the emotions of the last 13 months -- a scandal, a coach's death, the sanctions -- were painted on the faces of Penn State's players and worn on their helmets.

This game embodied the Nittany Lions' tumultuous season. Few expected them to come back, but they quickly showed -- after the first two scores -- they wouldn't surrender. They pressed, they pushed and they out-fought Wisconsin.

"I think this says that you can take bowl games and you can take external things from people," defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. "But you can't take a warrior's heart. And our kids got warriors' hearts."

An oversized, almost goofy grin was glued to John Urschel's face, but he didn't mind -- even when it was pointed out. Urschel shook his head, recalling how everyone counted Penn State out before the season.

Some columnists opined how 80 fewer scholarships, no postseason and lax transfer rules would bury Penn State with a fate worse than SMU's death penalty. This was cruel and unusual punishment, some said. Silas Redd transferred; Justin Brown followed. And with 10 new offensive starters, it seemed as if Penn State's hopes might have gone with them.

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O'Brien's influence evident in 2012 Lions

November, 17, 2012
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Offensive guard John Urschel rubbed his chin and just smiled at the questions Saturday afternoon.

How could Penn State lose 10 offensive starters in one offseason and somehow average 10 points more every game? How could Penn State set several offensive records Saturday with so many new starters?

Urschel, a man who often responds to news conference questions with, "Let me ponder that for a moment," didn't hesitate. He just smiled and said two words after the Nittany Lions toppled Indiana 45-22.

"Bill O'Brien."

He didn't need to say anymore. He didn't elaborate, didn't shrug. There was no more to add. O'Brien's been the coach this Penn State team has needed -- not just to bring the team together after the Jerry Sandusky scandal or past the sanctions. But to update an inefficient offense that seemed about as cutting-edge as a disco ball.

Penn State's just always been an old, throwback run-first team. Since the very beginning of its 126-year history.

Seven years before the topic of a forward pass was even broached -- before Penn State was known as the Nittany Lions -- Penn State ran. They ran when football first appeared live on fuzzy televisions. And they even ran the last time they had a first-round NFL quarterback in Kerry Collins.

They ran and ran until now. Until the Bill O'Brien era and the era of weekly changes.
[+] EnlargeMatt McGloin
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarMatt McGloin had his fourth 300-plus yard passing game Saturday against Indiana.

O'Brien's taken Allen Robinson, an offensive afterthought who finished with three catches last season, into the record books with the most catches by a PSU player in a single season. He's taken last year's third-string fullback, Zach Zwinak, and helped him become a player who could finish the season with more rushing yards than USC transfer Silas Redd.

And he's coached up Matt McGloin, who spent more time fuming on the sideline last season than behind center. McGloin also sent the record books back to the printing press by passing for more yards in a season (3,066) and the most career touchdowns (45) than any other Penn State quarterback.

"[O’Brien] and Coach [Charlie] Fisher have done a great job of teaching me how to play quarterback the correct way," McGloin said. "They've been doing such a good job of it. They have so much experience that it can't help but rub off on you."

Read between the lines there. McGloin never ever said the same of Jay Paterno, whose legacy of PSU quarterbacks seems to be that a majority regressed (See: Bolden, Robert and Morelli, Anthony). Jay Paterno knew McGloin for four seasons before he was dismissed from his coaching post -- but he never saw enough of the signal-caller to name him the indisputable starter.

O'Brien needed one spring.

The dimple-chinned coach smiled Saturday when he recalled the first time he knew McGloin was something special. He asked McGloin to draw up a play -- the read, the coverage, the protections. Everything.

McGloin strolled up to the white board and, O'Brien said, completed everything in about three seconds.

"It was Gun Trips Right 64 Special H-Sneak, I'll never forget that," O'Brien said. "And it was bang -- and I just knew at that point we had a kid who was working out, who wanted to be the starting quarterback."

The outspoken McGloin thought Robinson didn't get a fair shake last season. And it's clear -- by the benching of Bill Belton -- that O'Brien doesn't mind re-evaluating talent on a weekly basis. He's taken last year's scraps and turned them into star performers, coveted by every Big Ten team.

McGloin passed for 395 yards against Indiana, and Robinson caught 10 passes for 197 yards. With the old staff, those two could still be riding the bench right now. At best, those stats might be spread over two or three games. But O'Brien has taken a group of unwanteds -- a group with a strong bond fighting to rebuild the university's reputation -- and turned them into something drawing praise and respect from every corner of the country.

Urschel wasn't asked what Penn State's recipe to future success might be. But his past answer would fit just fine right here.

"Bill O'Brien."

Zwinak bowls over team, self, as starter

November, 15, 2012
11/15/12
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Zach Zwinak speaks in a hushed voice, as if he's talking to schoolchildren. He crosses his arms, uncrosses his arms, and fidgets as though his cowboy boots are a size too small.

[+] EnlargeZach Zwinak
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesHaving quietly run over opponents since he was a kid, RB Zach Zwinak is glad to finally -- quietly -- show off his talent for Penn State.
News conferences aren't the domain for this soft-spoken redshirt sophomore. He seems shy and hesitant in front of a dozen people. But put him in shoulder pads and hand him a helmet and he seems like the second coming of Tony Hunt as he steps on the gridiron -- even if he does perform for crowds larger than his hometown.

"When you get on the field, the fans are there, but I tend to tune them out. I'm always nervous. Coming into a game, I'm a nervous kind of guy," said Zwinak, who hails from Frederick, Md. (pop: 66,129). "But once the game starts, I don't notice anything anymore. It's just playing football like you have your whole life."

Zwinak's parents nudged him into football by the age of 8, after the shy redhead sprinted around the soccer field and continually knocked over his opponents. Zach didn't mean to; he just tended to focus on the ball and often bee-lined toward it -- and into whomever stood between it and him.

Substitute that soccer ball for the end zone, and Zwinak's mentality hasn't changed much. He'll run through and over his opponents, straight-arm or juke, to get nearer to that first-down marker. In his last 96 carries, he hasn't once been tackled behind the line of scrimmage. Zwinak's opponents might stand a better chance slowing a locomotive.

"Oh, his success doesn't surprise me," said Rich Conner, his high school coach. "He changed the way we did things. Our two-minute offense was the fullback trap. Give it to Zach, and he would go 60 yards. 'Code Red.' It was a great play."

Zwinak, a bruising 232-pound tailback, didn't enter this season as the starter. Or as the backup. Or the backup's backup. Or as the ... well, you get the idea. When Silas Redd transferred to USC and Penn State coach Bill O'Brien watched four other tailbacks crumple to the turf with injuries, Zwinak's number was finally called. In the second half against Temple, there was no one else left.

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5 storylines: Indiana vs. Penn State 

November, 15, 2012
11/15/12
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Every week, NittanyNation takes a look at five storylines that stand out: What should fans keep an eye on? What's the bigger picture? What might be on display Saturday?

Here are NittanyNation's Week 12 storylines:

1. Allen Robinson will make Penn State history. The sophomore wideout needs just one catch to break Penn State's single-season mark for receptions. He's currently tied with former PSU greats Bobby Engram and O.J. McDuffie with 63 catches. Robinson hasn't gone one game with a reception, so he figures to break this mark early. He was a third-string wideout last season, and few expected him to be the No. 1 wideout this year -- let alone breaking records like this. He'll be in the spotlight Saturday.

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5 Questions: 2013 commit Curtis Cothran 

October, 19, 2012
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Every week, NittanyNation will pose five questions to a recruit, player, alum or coach about all things Penn State.

This week's subject is Curtis Cothran, a three-star defensive end out of Newtown (Pa.) Council Rock North. The 6-foot-5, 240-pound senior committed in March and needed just several days to affirm his loyalty after the sanctions.

Despite double teams, Cothran has eight sacks through seven games this season. He's been to two PSU games so far this year, but he'll have to watch the OSU-PSU contest from home. A disappointed Cothran said he has a homecoming game that Saturday, so he would be cutting it too close if he left immediately afterward.

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Penn State tailback Curtis Dukes will finish out this season, but he's considering leaving afterward because of limited playing time, his high school coach told ESPN.

[+] EnlargeCurtis Dukes
Rob Carr/Getty ImagesPenn State running back Curtis Dukes is contemplating a transfer, according to his high school coach.
"We talked just 10 minutes ago, and he's still weighing his options," Indian River (N.Y.) coach Cory Marsell said. "There's a chance he can get his degree soon and then figure out what options he has."

Those options include staying with Penn State, transferring to another college or declaring for the NFL draft. Marsell believed the redshirt junior's size -- 6-foot-1, 245 pounds -- could translate well to the next level.

Dukes, who has just 69 career carries, first told the Watertown (N.Y.) Daily Times he was unhappy with his playing time.

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Catching up with PSU's transfers 

September, 30, 2012
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Nine players transferred around the time the sanctions were announced, and NittanyNation has checked in with each player to see how he's doing on his new team.

We've taken a look at their playing time and stats -- and have tried to answer whether each player is better off with the move. We're not talking bowl games or individual priorities here; we're strictly answering whether the exposure/playing time is better on the new squad.

(Derrick Thomas and Devon Smith are not included because they left the team in June, a month before the sanctions hit.) QB Rob Bolden, junior, LSU

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PSU offense improves despite setbacks

September, 26, 2012
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Matt McGloin chuckled when asked whether this offense was an improvement over last year.

He didn't point out his conference-leading nine touchdown passes or argue how the Nittany Lions are spending more time in opponent territory than in the locker room. No, he just stifled a laugh.

[+] EnlargeBill O'Brien
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarMatt McGloin believes this season's offense is markedly better than last season's.
"What kind of question is that, man? You can't compare the two," he said in a light-hearted prodding Wednesday. "It's different philosophies. All I'm saying is that I'm happy to be in the offense this year."

Despite four new starters on the offensive line, starting four different tailbacks in four weeks and watching three wideouts leave since the spring, this offense has transformed from a run-up-the-middle slumber party to one where adjectives such as "exciting" and "high-powered" are no longer used ironically.

Former quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno struggled building offensive foundations with four- and-five star talent (Kevin Newsome, Paul Jones, Rob Bolden). But Bill O'Brien and Charlie Fisher have molded an above-average Big Ten quarterback out of a former walk-on.

Penn State's leading receiver, Allen Robinson, was a third-string afterthought last season. Zach Zwinak was the third-string fullback. Against Temple, the two led the team in rushing and receiving.

O'Brien has taken a patchwork offense and stitched it into something that's attracted the top high school offensive talent in the country.

"I'm looking forward to working with that system," said ESPN's No. 1-rated passer, Christian Hackenberg (Fork Union, Va./Fork Union).

McGloin boasts one more yard passing right now than USC's Matt Barkley. No one is saying McGloin's the better signal-caller, but no one thought he'd be ahead of Barkley at this point either. Penn State's offense still has a long way to go before it can call itself one of the best in the Big Ten, but the fact it somehow seems improved is a feat in itself.

The Lions averaged less than 20 points a game last season with stars like Silas Redd, Justin Brown and Derek Moye. Through four games -- against three teams that played in bowls last season -- Penn State's put up an average of 22 points on the scoreboard and left a lot more points on the field.

Against Temple, Penn State's first eight drives entered opponent territory. Against Virginia, the Lions drove close enough to attempt five field goals.

They've been close to scoring, breaking out of mediocrity, and they're getting closer every game.

So, near the end of McGloin's teleconference call Wednesday afternoon, the quarterback wasn't in the mood to discuss whether this offense was better. He admitted the passing game struggled in the past and labeled it "successful" this season ... but he wasn't answering that question.

"Come on, dude, asking stuff like that," he said with a laugh. "All right, we're done here."
Graham Zug will lie back and peruse the box scores every Saturday. He'll glance past the passing, sometimes the defensive stats. Sometimes, he won't even look at the other team.

The former Penn State wideout isn't interested in the Heisman race or even the national title picture. He just wants to know how Penn State's transfers played.

"I still watch them," Zug said.

Zug isn't alone. Several lettermen said a majority of recent players support the transfers, although they believed the mood is more evenly split among other alumni.

Derek Moye, last year's top wideout, said he harbors no resentment toward the nine transfers. He wishes they would have remained in Happy Valley, but their departures have led to an unexpected bonus on Saturdays.

"I watch a majority of the guys' games, and I think it's kind of cool to have a rooting interest for teams other than Penn State," Moye said.

[+] EnlargeSilas Redd
Rich Barnes/US PresswireMany of his former Penn State teammates admit to watching Silas Redd run for his current team, USC, on Saturdays.
Moye and Zug have watched both games of USC transfer Silas Redd, not others, because the Trojans appear on TV so often. Whenever Moye's clicking through the channels, finding games with the transfers becomes a priority -- as long as it remains competitive.

He admitted to clicking away from the USC-Hawaii game after awhile. But, then again, USC led 35-0 at halftime.

"I don't really know if I could say if they made the right or wrong decision," Moye said, referring to Redd and Oklahoma's Justin Brown. "But both of their teams are 2-0 and Penn State's 0-2. It's really hard to look at how they're both doing and say they made a wrong decision."

Feelings appeared to be mixed among the current team. Defensive end Pete Massaro shook his head Tuesday and said he doesn't follow them. Deion Barnes said he'll chat with Redd occasionally -- but that's the extent of his involvement.

Allen Robinson and Adrian Amos both said they continue to root for their former teammates.

"At the end of the day," Robinson said, "we're still brothers."

Adam Taliaferro, a member of the 2000 recruiting class, agreed with Robinson's sentiment. He hasn't missed Redd's first two games, and he still talks with Brown.

Taliaferro and a few former players packed into a downtown sports bar after the Penn State season-opener and cheered for Redd against the Rainbow Warriors. Taliaferro still hasn't watched Brown, but the Sooners haven't yet appeared on national TV.

"I told Justin he's still a Penn State guy, he's just in a different uniform for a while," Taliaferro said. "When you're part of the family, it's hard to turn your back on anyone like that."

Most players said they understood the transfers, but Brown's and Redd's still came as a shock. Redd was a returning tailback who could have seen 25 touches a game, while Brown would have been the No. 1 option in a pro-style offense during his final semester. But, the current and former lettermen said, the transfers did what they thought was best for them.

"I don't have any hard feelings for them," Zug added. "But, if it was me, I would've stayed at Penn State because I dedicated my life to Penn State. But you can't get mad at other people -- they had great opportunities."

Day to start over injured Belton

September, 6, 2012
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Tailback Derek Day will start over an injured Bill Belton against Virginia, Bill O'Brien said Thursday night on his weekly radio show.

O'Brien said Belton remained "day-to-day," but Day will now get the nod even if the sophomore's ankle improves. Belton was sidelined in the third quarter against Ohio, and an ice pack was wrapped around that left ankle.

Belton did not practice Wednesday when the media arrived during an open 30-minute session, and Day took reps with the first team.

Day, a fifth-year senior, has just 15 career carries and was listed as the No. 3 tailback in the spring. With Silas Redd's departure and Belton's injury, he now climbs to No. 1.

"He always gives his best effort and I'm real excited to watch him play and for him to get that opportunity," linebacker Michael Mauti said earlier this week. "I know he's going to make the most of it."

Offense seeking balance

September, 6, 2012
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Bill O'Brien didn't have to pause and search for an answer when asked about this week's offensive game plan. To O'Brien, the solution to Saturday's maladies seemed obvious.

"We've got to be more balanced," the first-year head coach said. "That starts with me."

He didn't walk through the south tunnel Saturday hoping to pass nearly seven out of 10 plays. And, he said, he's not looking to do that against Virginia. He wants to return to the football basics; he wants to run more.

But there's a hitch in this week's scheme: Trainers have held Bill Belton out of practice, and O'Brien might be forced to start a fifth-year senior, Derek Day, who's carried the ball 15 times in his career.

USC transfer Silas Redd reached that mark eight times last season.

"For any QB to be successful, you have to run the football," Matt McGloin admitted.

O'Brien called 48 passes to just 22 runs last week. Even by New England Patriots standards, that's high. Tom Brady surpassed the 48-attempt plateau just once last season in a 24-20 loss to the New York Giants.

New England passed about 58 percent of the time last season; Penn State passed in 68.5 percent of its plays last week. To add some perspective, even pass-happy Houston would've called about five more running plays than PSU, based on last year's numbers.

So, O'Brien appeared sincere this week when he said he'd better emphasize his stable of inexperienced running backs. He praised his offensive line and remarked about his confidence in Day and those other tailbacks. But, Virginia coach Mike London didn't appear to expect balance.

"I think they won't depart too far from what they showed last week, showing what their identity is," London said Thursday.

Short, quick pass plays defined the Nittany Lions' offense when it hustled the ball downfield in the first half. Then again, it also defined an offense that sputtered in the second half.

"We felt in the first half we were kind of showing the identity we wanted to have," offensive tackle Mike Farrell said, "but in the second half we faded a little bit. So it's been a priority this week for us to improve and play a full game."

Tight end Kyle Carter said his team hoped to add another dimension to its attack by focusing more on deep throws. McGloin didn't complete a pass longer than 25 yards, and most attempts weren't thrown farther than 15.

At practice Wednesday, quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher stood close to McGloin while he launched a handful of 40-yard tosses. Allen Robinson caught a perfect ball in stride, while a slower Matt Zanellato found himself two steps behind another.

McGloin wouldn't say what he was expecting for Charlottesville. He refused to say whether, when he looks back on this season, Penn State might have more passes than rushes.

"Right now, it's simple," McGloin said. "We're going to do what we have to do to win. If that means we throw it 10 times, we'll throw it 10 times. If we have to run it 100 times, we'll run it 100."

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