Penn State Nittany Lions: Stephen Obeng-Agyapong
So, as part of this week’s countdown, we’re looking at the five players to watch the closest this spring. Up today, at No. 4, is a player who made waves after a punt block as a freshman.
No. 4 spring player to watch: LB Nyeem Wartman
Why spring is so important: Penn State is light on experience at linebacker and, outside of Mike Hull, Wartman is the most seasoned linebacker on the team. So, for this group of linebackers to succeed, Penn State needs Wartman to succeed. Kline is overcoming two surgeries this offseason, one for lingering shoulder issues and another for a torn pec, and both Stephen Obeng-Agyapong and Glenn Carson have graduated -- so there’s really no one else to step in Wartman’s spot. It’s sink or swim, and if he sinks, Penn State sinks. Wartman made a lot of waves as a true freshman in 2012 before an injury led to a medical redshirt, and he needs to step up as a redshirt sophomore. This spring will help determine whether he can do that.
Best-case scenario: Wartman becomes a solid outside linebacker and is the team’s second-best linebacker behind Hull. He takes his run-stuffing ability to the next level, gains a conference-wide reputation for his penchant for the big hit and forces several key turnovers. He finishes the season as an honorable-mention selection on the All-Big Ten team and picks up the slack while the other outside linebacker, likely Bell, finds his footing.
Worst-case scenario: Wartman’s production flatlines, as Bell continues his quick rise and overtakes him. Wartman remains a below-average to mediocre linebacker and adds little to the defense, except the occasional big tackle that makes fans wonder where that intensity is at other times. James Franklin tries playing other linebackers, either Kline once he gets healthy or a freshman, to spark the defense.
More players to watch:
No. 5: DB Adrian Amos
Once again, until spring practice starts, we'll have a different countdown every week. Up next are the positions of concern for Penn State, and this group is one that historically hasn't been an issue for the Nittany Lions.
No. 4: Linebackers
Last season: Depth was a huge concern throughout the season, and PSU tried to overcome that with position switches and different combinations. Safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong moved to the outside and filled in for Hull when he was injured, while Bell, Wartman and Kline split time as the season progressed. The health of this unit was an ongoing issue, but Glenn Carson turned in a solid season And Hull, when healthy, was also good -- although he failed to meet lofty expectations (in part because of those injuries).
What's missing: Depth. It's the same issue as 2013, except the most solid starter in Carson is now gone. Kline once again has two surgeries to recover from this offseason, and Wooten appears to be more of a special-teams contributor. Outside of those two, there are just five linebackers on scholarship -- and that includes the two incoming freshmen.
Moving forward: Wartman and Bell were both greenhorns last season, so they at least have experience now. And they'll both need to be solid -- and healthy -- for this group to experience success. An injury to Hull or those two could be disastrous. Kline is once again a wild card because he's coming off of serious injuries, so PSU might have to turn to a non-scholarship player or a true freshman to pick up some slack. Incoming freshman Koa Farmer could play safety or linebacker, and Reeder appears more game-ready than Cabinda. For the second straight season, linebacker is once again a concern for Linebacker U.
East-West Shrine Game
Players who registered statistics:
- Michigan WR Jeremy Gallon led the East team with four receptions for 55 yards
- Purdue CB Ricardo Allen ranked second on the East team in tackles with five. He also had three punt returns for 56 yards, including a 30-yarder
- Purdue DT Bruce Gaston Jr. had two tackles for the East team, both on run plays that went for one yard
- Penn State LB Glenn Carson had four tackles for the East team
- Penn State S Stephen Obeng-Agyapong had three tackles and a pass breakup for the West team
- Indiana TE Ted Bolser had two receptions for eight yards for the West team
- Michigan State LB Max Bullough had three tackles for the West team
- Minnesota S/CB Brock Vereen had one tackle for the West team
- Nebraska WR Quincy Enunwa had one tackle on special teams but no receptions for the West team
Players who registered statistics:
- Ohio State QB Kenny Guiton completed 1 of 4 pass attempts for nine yards. He also lost a fumble for Team American
- Wisconsin TE Brian Wozniak had two receptions for 25 yards for Team American
- Nebraska OT Brent Qvale registered a tackle on the play where Guiton fumbled for Team American
- Ohio State S C.J. Barnett had a tackle for Team American
I love my 2014 class of PSU ....we have that brothers connection and we didn't even enroll to PSU yet— Marcus Allen (@Chico_Ehhh) January 2, 2014
If it wasn't for Coach OB I probably wouldn't be playing football anymore, I wish him the best in the NFL.— Devin Pryor #16 (@D_Pryor16) January 1, 2014
We all we got! No reason to panic or jump ship! Doesn't matter the system nor the coach...players win games period— Bill Belton (@W3BII) January 1, 2014
No matter what happens football games will be played and won by the Nittany Lions love all my brothers we will stick together #WeAre— Hunter Crafford (@Craf_FordTough) January 1, 2014
Never worry about the things you can't control— Malik Golden (@_goldenboy6) January 1, 2014
A man's gotta do what a man has GOT TO DO. It's life baby !— Stephen Obeng-Agy... (@BigBENGTheory7) January 1, 2014
New Year, New Head Coach I suppose— DaeSean Hamilton (@SkeeterMills__) January 1, 2014
Bout to be the best year for me yet and bout to be the best year for Penn State #WeAre— carter Henderson (@hendydo_42) January 1, 2014
I hope I have another chance to play under Coach O'B. I love the guy, I appreciate everything he's done for me. I couldn't be more thankful.— Jesse James (@JJames18_) January 1, 2014
Good luck to Coach O'Brien and his family. Made a tremendous impact on my life and many others during his time at Penn State.— Ty Howle (@THowle60) January 1, 2014
Best of luck to the O'Brien family and to the lucky man that gets to coach this prestige organization... I can't wait to meet you— Troy Stivason (@teejaystives) January 1, 2014
To all of the Penn State family: Penn State is and will always be about more than any one man. WE ARE everything we have always been— Derek Dowrey (@doubleDowrey) January 1, 2014
Coach O'Brien was a great mentor, coach and father figure but every coach has the aspirations to coach in the NFL. glad coach can chase his.— Brian Gaia (@that_gaia) January 1, 2014
Gotta keep on movin forward people that's all we can do #yafeelme— Austin Johnson (@AJohn15) January 1, 2014
One thing OB taught me is that this is a business, and u should do what's best for you.Texans are getting a good coach, I wish him the best— Deion Barnes (@DBarnes_18) January 1, 2014
Coach O'brien is a great coach and great person! Proud to have called him my coach. It was his dream to coach in the NFL, best of luck. #PSU— Mike Hull (@m_hull4943) January 1, 2014
I'll love Coach Obrien forever. He will always be apart of Penn State. One of the greatest men I've ever known. #PennStateForever— Miles Dieffenbach (@Curiousjorge65) January 1, 2014
Fight on. We still are and forever will be.— Garrett Sickels (@Sickels_90) January 1, 2014
Time to move on Penn State! We will find the right man for the job. BOB did plenty for us. Time for a true Blue and White bleeder! #WeAre— OJ McDuffie (@ojmcduffie81) January 1, 2014
Up today: Defensive backs.
With Adrian Amos' move to safety, many took that as a sign that defensive coordinator John Butler was confident with the new cornerbacks (Jordan Lucas and Trevor Williams) and that this group wouldn't be the liability it was in 2012. Penn State was forced to play more zone coverage than it wanted to in 2012, but 2013 appeared as if the secondary could at least earn the status of "average." It wouldn't be a defensive strength, but it wouldn't be a complete disaster either.
How they fared: Maybe it wasn't a total disaster ... but it was close. Amos' position switch to safety was a total bust, and he was moved back to cornerback later in the season. The safeties were once again the Achilles' heel on the team and, despite returning both starters from 2012 (Malcolm Willis and safety-turned-linebacker Stephen Obeng-Agyapong), the position of safety somehow managed to take a step back.
Ryan Keiser caught the ire of fans quite a few times, and it wasn't unusual for a defensive back to be completely out of position. PSU didn't press often, the corners gave opposing receivers plenty of room and third-and-long wasn't an automatic prelude to a punt. This was the worst unit on the team -- by far. Again.
What we learned: Butler doesn't have a lot to work with here. CB Da'Quan Davis saw time early in 2012 but hasn't played much since. Wideout-turned-cornerback Williams was looked upon as the better option and, well, you know how Williams fared. He was pulled about six games into the season. Nearly all of the prime options in the secondary are underclassmen. Outside of Willis, PSU had to resort to former walk-ons at safety.
Grading the position: D. If this unit was average, Penn State might've been at least 9-3. But even teams like run-first Minnesota were able to pass on the Nittany Lions. Lucas was a nice surprise, but one nice surprise couldn't overcome missed expectations everywhere else. Amos admittedly didn't live up to expectations, the safeties were a mess, and there really wasn't a whole lot of good to say here.
Key losses: Willis. He wasn't a great player, but he still helped other players in the secondary adjust. He was the quarterback of the defense and a vocal leader who helped the underclassmen. PSU probably will be able to replace his production, however. Can Keiser or Jesse Della Valle really be that much worse?
Position stock watch: Trending upward. Penn State had to hit rock-bottom in 2013; it had to. It really has nowhere to go but up. The cornerbacks should actually be above-average in 2014, and this could finally be the breakout season everyone was waiting for from Amos. Safety is obviously a huge concern but, once again, it really can't get that much worse.
Key to next season: Getting average play from the safeties. They don't have to be great, or even all that good. Simply being average would be a big step up. That being said, it might be difficult for this unit to improve that much. Malik Golden could be the answer, as he saw some significant time toward the end of the season. And it's always possible that a freshman could contribute here. Lucas can also play safety ... but that'd likely cause some head-scratching after the failed experiment with Amos.
Up today: Linebackers.
Expectations entering the 2013 season: This group was clearly going to take a big step back from 2012. Without Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges, this was probably the group that was going to receive the heftiest downgrade.
How they fared: Injuries were a concern, and they were felt almost immediately. Hull injured his knee against Syracuse, and it took him weeks before he was back to 100 percent. Safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong was forced to take over, and he allowed the linebackers to bide some time until Hull returned. He wasn't a factor in the second-half of the season.
Ben Kline, who overcame a serious shoulder injury, did the most with the time he saw once healed -- but then he fell again to another serious injury. Hull didn't meet expectations, and neither did Wartman, but Brandon Bell was a nice surprise toward the end. This group avoided total disaster, but it would be difficult to rank it above-average.
What we learned: Linebacker will take a few years to reload. Penn State grew accustomed to churning out one strong corps of linebackers after another, but 2013 was the exception. If everyone stayed healthy -- and Kline was never injured in the offseason -- it might've been different. But those are a lot of "what ifs." It became clear in 2013 that linebacker wasn't going to be just a one-year or two-year fix. It'll take a few years for Linebacker U to return to glory.
Grading the position: C. Yes, average. This wasn't one of the better groups in the Big Ten, and it wasn't among the worst. Carson was above-average, but he was the only linebacker who earned an honorable mention on the All-Big Ten team. None were named to the first or second team. Tackling was an issue at times, and so was pursuit, but it wouldn't be fair to say the linebackers were a liability, either. Once again, it was an average group ... while most PSU fans are used to great in this department.
Key losses: Carson. Sure, everyone else returns, but Carson was the most solid of the bunch. Hull needs to show he's not as injury-prone as 2013 suggests, and PSU should receive some extra bodies in the form of incoming freshmen Troy Reeder (Wilmington, Del/Salesianum) and Jason Cabinda (Flemington, N.J./Hunterdon Central).
Position stock watch: Trending downward. On one hand, two of PSU's starting spots should improve from last season. On the other, Carson's departure is sure to be felt ... and the other two spots are far from guarantees. Kline has to overcome two surgeries in the offseason, so PSU finds itself in a similar position as last season. One injury could completely derail this group. It needs Hull, Wartman and Bell to be on top of their games -- and stay healthy. If they don't? Well, fans might miss the performance from the 2013 season.
Key to next season: Finding depth ... somewhere. The trio of Hull, Wartman and Bell can't stay on the field all game every game -- so, not only do those three need to take huge steps from last season, but Penn State also needs more players to step up at this position. Redshirt sophomore Gary Wooten hasn't contributed much outside of special teams and -- outside of an injured Kline -- Wooten is next in line. That means Penn State will needs a true freshman or a non-scholarship player to step up. Maybe it can move a backup DB over a la Obeng-Agyapong; maybe not. O'Brien needs to find someone, anyone, who can contribute.
Here are five things to keep an eye on:
1. Two true freshman QBs with lots of potential. OK, you already know plenty about Christian Hackenberg and how he's making a strong case for the Big Ten freshman of the year award. But Purdue's Danny Etling could have a bright future ahead of him, too. The Boilermakers are struggling, but Etling said -- despite the numbers -- he's improving every week. He was a four-star recruit last season, the Boilermakers' highest-rated prospect since ESPN started keeping track, and he's been the starter since Week 6. He has thrown five interceptions to four TDs so far this season, but his best football is ahead of him. Same goes for Hackenberg. Watching these two players Saturday should be like catching a quick glimpse of the B1G future.
2. Allen Robinson nearing another school record ... again. No, this isn't a misprint. He broke Bobby Engram's single-season receiving mark of 1,084 yards last week -- and he could set the single-season receptions record against Purdue. Robinson set that record last year with 77 catches, and he currently boasts 73 receptions. He's the only Penn State receiver to reach the 70-catch mark, and no PSU wideout has ever reached the 80-reception plateau. Expect more of the same from Robinson; he's making history just about every week now.
3. Running wild over Purdue. The Boilermakers have allowed 200-yard rushing games five times so far this season, as they're ranked No. 111 in the country in rush defense. That means big games could be in store for both Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak. It's been difficult to predict lately who'll handle the heavier workload, but both are likely to see plenty of time in the afternoon. Zwinak can run on the inside and blow over defenders for extra yards, while Belton's cutting ability has improved greatly since last season. Both players should be able to pad their stats against Purdue's dismal run defense.
4. Third-down defense. The Lions' defense took a step back last week, as they allowed the opposition to convert on 7-of-10 third downs during the first half of last week's game. They couldn't get off the field, and that was a big reason they were manhandled in the first two quarters -- so it's worth keeping an eye on that same down Saturday. The good news for Penn State is that Purdue is among the worst in the country (notice a trend?) and ranks No. 114 in terms of converting third downs (30.6 percent). So, if PSU can't stop Purdue on third down, then it probably won't be able to stop future opponents Nebraska and Wisconsin.
5. New PSU player roles? LB Ben Kline didn't open the season as the starter, but he started the last two games and seemed to be making a lot of progress. He's out for the season now, so it'll be interesting to see if this corps takes a step back against Purdue. Stephen Obeng-Agyapong and Nyeem Wartman will likely compete for his spot, just as they did before Kline earned the starts, but Bill O'Brien also mentioned that true freshman LB Brandon Bell should see an increased workload. On the offensive side of the ball, O'Brien told reporters to expect to see more of redshirt freshman wideout Eugene Lewis, who made an outstanding 54-yard TD catch in Week 1 ... but has only accounted for 71 yards since. If Robinson leaves early for the NFL, Lewis could be PSU's top wideout next season.
The redshirt sophomore will also undergo a second shoulder surgery that will come after the pectoral surgery, Penn State coach Bill O'Brien said.
"I think he can definitely come back from those," O'Brien said Tuesday afternoon. "I brought him in and had this exact conversation with him. I told him, 'We look forward to bringing you back next year.'
"He's still at the meetings. I look at Ben Kline as a tough kid."
Kline tore his pec on the second play of Saturday's game against Minnesota but played the rest of the game. He finished with four tackles.
Depth at linebacker was among O'Brien's chief concerns this season, and Kline played in every game, starting the last two. He finished the season with 18 tackles and one sack.
Redshirt freshman Nyeem Wartman and safety-turned-linebacker Stephen Obeng-Agyapong will likely compete for the starting job in his place.
Kline addressed the media last week and said his shoulder continued to bother him this season. He said he had finally gotten his confidence back and praised the trainers for getting him prepared.
"It's been a little more trying than other seasons," Kline said last week. "But I'm just trying to do what I can to help the team."
Kline has two years of eligibility remaining.
One man pointed at the No. 9 on TV, cackling while the Penn State sophomore walked to the sideline. "Oh God," a Corona-sipping man said to Lucas' father, Vincent, pointing and laughing away like old friends are wont to do. "There goes that Lucas swagger! Look -- he's walking with that bounce you walk with!"
"Yeah," Vincent told him. "There he goes. He's in a zone right now; I can tell by the way he walks."
That walk was different last season, back when the cornerback mainly played special teams. Fans knew him only as the kid from prep school, if they knew him at all. But everyone knows Jordan Lucas and that swagger now.
He's a vocal leader on the secondary, the kid who'd toss on a winter jacket in high school and run on the sidewalks in December, even when flurries hit the streets of New Rochelle, N.Y. He's the defensive back who leads the team in interceptions (two), forced fumbles (two) and boasts 4.5 tackles for loss. He's one of the lone bright spots on an otherwise struggling defense, one of the first players to sprint out of the Beaver Stadium tunnel every home game.
"Jordan Lucas is one of the better football players on our team," Bill O'Brien said. "He brings a competitive toughness to our football team that I really like."
O'Brien leaned against the railing last year and overlooked the weight room on some days, as Lucas and former cornerback Stephon Morris took turns lifting barbells while most of their teammates slept. Morris awoke stiff on some mornings, tempted to pull the sheets over his head or hit "snooze," but he'd always receive a text or call from Jordan: "What're we doing today, Steph?"
"He just wouldn't stay away," Morris said with a laugh. "And I couldn't say no to him; I had to set an example. And he never missed a workout -- never. That's rare."
Jordan added to his work ethic, one he borrowed from a father who grew up on a North Carolina farm and fed the family pigs two hours before the school bell sounded. He evolved into one of the Nittany Lions' gym rats, a player who has still never missed a single optional workout. But teammate Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, who grew up 5 minutes from Lucas in the Bronx, knew something was amiss last year. So did Morris.
"I'm not going to lie," Morris said. "He didn't have any confidence."
Jordan saw time at cornerback on the final game of the year last season. Morris remembers his big eyes while Jordan can still recall standing on the sideline, growing more overwhelmed with every shoulder pat and motivating word his teammates would utter: "Get ready!" "You ready for this?" "C'mon, it's your turn!"
On a recent fall afternoon, when red and yellow leaves littered the pavement in front of the football building, Jordan at first insisted he didn't feel lost last season. After all, he was the talkative guy now. He was the player that true freshman Jordan Smith looked up to like a big brother; he was a big reason Penn State's defense wasn't in total disarray.
But, a few minutes later, he relented. With a varsity jacket zipped up near his chin, he admitted -- despite how far along he is today -- that he was overwhelmed at times last year. He had lost that swagger, misplaced somewhere between the transition of college and watching his work ethic exceed his production.
"I've always been the same dude but, freshman year, it just didn't feel like I was playing high school football again. It actually felt like college football," Lucas said. "Now? The college game has slowed down a bit. It feels closer to the high school game again. I didn't feel like that same Jordan last year; I do now."
Added Vincent: "He was a little bit intimidated about the whole thing [last year], more than he let on."
Between bites of pancakes, bacon and homefries, Jordan told his father he just didn't feel the same. He did what he always did -- running in the snow, training on the field over the offseason, reclining in his usual film-room seat -- but he was no longer the strongest or fastest or most athletic. Vincent leaned in and whispered that his only enemies were time and experience, not skill or talent. With Morris' departure, now was the time to step up. Now was the time to to put that mindset behind him, work even harder and let his talent catch up with his work ethic.
"You may not be the best, but you can always be the hardest worker," Jordan told ESPN.com. "That's what Coach [John] Butler -- and my dad -- always tell me."
By June, Jordan had become the unquestioned starter at cornerback. By October, that swagger had strolled on back to Jordan's step; he had become one of the defense's top players. He has recorded interceptions in two of the last four games, and Morris still calls him every week to remind him he's the team's top defensive back right now -- and to keep acting like it.
Just like Vincent and his friends, Morris notices that swagger to his step now. And now that the walk, that confidence, has returned, Jordan is looking forward. When asked about what's next, Jordan looked directly ahead and spoke with the conviction of a man who already has seen his future.
"I'm not going to stop. I look at it like this, there's no ceiling for me," he said. "I want to keep going and, hey, maybe one day there will be a ceiling. But, even then, I'm never going to tell myself that. Each day I'm going to get better. Each day I'm going to give my best."
The first-year coordinator took some heat over popular Penn State fan boards and on social media after PSU's 63-14 loss to Ohio State. It was the defense's worst performance since 1899, and it was the third straight game the Nittany Lions surrendered 40 or more points.
"If anybody should take heat, it's Bill O'Brien -- not John Butler. I don't know where that's coming from but, hopefully, that will get squelched. That's a bunch of crap that he's taking heat."
About 10 minutes after O'Brien stepped off the dais, safety Jesse Della Valle took his place. The first question centered around Butler, and Della Valle echoed his head coach's sentiment.
"Coach Butler is a guy that's always working with us as players to develop us every single week, every single day," Della Valle said. "He's extremely passionate about what he does and his profession. And I think I speak for every player on our team when I say everyone has a lot of respect for him and really respects the work he does for our team."
Butler has been forced to operate a defense this season that's without former All-Big Ten talents Michael Mauti, Gerald Hodges and Jordan Hill. Butler wasn't made available to the media Saturday and isn't scheduled to speak this week, but O'Brien said they plan to simplify the defense in preparation for Illinois.
There have been quite a few changes on defense since last season. Last year's starting safety, Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, is now at linebacker. And Trevor Williams, a wideout last season, has started at cornerback -- although O'Brien said that Adrian Amos will reclaim his old CB position instead of playing safety.
"We have a lot of good players on both sides of the ball, but I think we just need to let them go play," O'Brien said. "That's what I talked to the staff about on Sunday -- just let them go play."
Christian Hackenberg OK: The true freshman missed most of Saturday's second half with a shoulder injury, but O'Brien said he was a full participant in Monday's practice.
"He's good to go, as we sit here today," O'Brien said.
Hackenberg didn't need any extra braces on Monday. PSU's head coach intimated he was just fine and will start again Saturday.
Starting tailback: Bill Belton started on Saturday night, and O'Brien said the shifty runner is now the team's starting running back over Zach Zwinak.
"He's a much improved player, he really is," O'Brien said. "He's more patient in the running game. I think he understands how to watch film better. I think he's a better teammate."
The move came on the heels of Zwinak's renewed fumbling issues. Zwinak has fumbled eight times since last season, including twice in the last two games, on just 11 carries.
"If there's one guy making mistakes, obviously, the other two guys are going to play more," O'Brien added. "Right now, Zach has got a little bit of a fumble issue. I do think it's a little bit mental. I talked to him for a long time yesterday."
Players deflected questions about the two running backs, but the simple conjunction on the depth chart -- "OR" -- next to their two names said a lot.
It said either tailback could start against Ohio State on Saturday night. It said that maybe, just maybe, Belton is the Nittany Lions' best option at this point. And that there's at least a drizzle of controversy in the Penn State backfield for the first time since last September.
The red-haired, 240-pound Zwinak had been the main ball-carrier in 13 of 14 games up until the Michigan contest. That could change Saturday -- and, that, really is the story.
And that's what that simple "OR" really signifies.
"We'll continue to rotate guys in at that position," Bill O'Brien said Tuesday, crossing his arms and trying to downplay the change. "And both of those guys will play against Ohio State."
Belton was nothing more than an offensive afterthought last year. But the New Jersey native has burst onto the scene as the Lions' most improved player on offense -- he's averaging 5.3 yards a carry this year, a full yard more than Zwinak -- while his heavier counterpart has struggled with fumbling issues.
Those fumbles aren't so insignificant. Zwinak coughed up the ball to open the second half against Michigan and Frank Clark scooped it up for a touchdown to change the complexion of the game. Offensive guard John Urschel defended Zwinak earlier this week by saying, "To play this game you have to have a short memory, so he learns from it. ... At the end of the day, he's moved on."
But this wasn't an isolated incident. Zwinak has been a positive threat in the red zone but also a threat to turn the ball over. He's fumbled seven times since last season. That means, since he first started, he fumbles once an average of every 42 carries. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the average NCAA tailback fumbles once every 91 carries.
This isn't meant to pile it on Zwinak, who often leaves piles of dazed defenders in his wake. He's undoubtedly a talented tailback. But it's those mistakes that have given the shifty Belton enough room to wiggle his way toward the top of the depth chart.
When Zwinak turned the ball over against Michigan, Belton jogged into the huddle on the next series while the tailback affectionately known as "ZZ" didn't touch the pigskin for the rest of the four-hour, 11-minute classic. If Zwinak showed he was PSU's best tailback last season during the Temple game, then this Michigan contest was Belton's turn.
Zwinak is a good running back with a big asterisk next to his name. Belton is proving to be a good running back. Belton made a patient first down on a critical fourth-and-1 play in the fourth overtime and also ran for the game-winning TD against Michigan. He's blocked well, made a few nice catches -- and he hasn't fumbled for 126 consecutive carries. Statistically, Zwinak would've averaged three fumbles over that same workload.
O'Brien has shown he's not afraid to make changes to the depth chart. Defensive end Anthony Zettel started in place of reigning Big Ten freshman of the year Deion Barnes two weeks ago. Safety-turned-linebacker Stephen Obeng-Agyapong has started in place of Nyeem Wartman. Even walk-on long-snapper Zach Ladonis, who's been on the roster for just a few weeks, is seeing time on the field now.
The Penn State head coach made those changes because he believed they gave his team the best chance to win. And, right now, Belton might just be Penn State's best option -- even if that "OR" doesn't translate into a start.
Obeng-Agyapong doesn't go out of his way to see that play, a score that handed the Buckeyes a 21-10 lead. It's just hard to miss.
"I see that play all the time. It just happens to be there," he said. "I don't actually look; it just pops up there. You're just trying to play this game and not let things like that happen again."
Those kinds of plays have highlighted Miller's career and have helped dictate the Buckeyes' success since he lined up under center as a true freshman. Since that time, Ohio State is 14-1 when the dual-threat reaches the 200-yard mark in total yards. When he's held to less than 200 yards? His team's just 7-5.
Talk to Penn State's defensive linemen, linebackers or DBs. Talk to the coaches. It doesn't matter. They're all going to echo the exact same thing: Stopping Miller, who reportedly runs in the 4.4s, is absolutely key.
"It's a very difficult challenge playing a guy like Braxton Miller -- in my opinion one of the top five players in the country," coach Bill O'Brien said. "He's improved immensely since being in the system."
Miller leads the conference in quarterback rating (160.0) and completion rate (69.6). He reminds Obeng-Agyapong of Michigan's Devin Gardner, who rushed for 121 yards and threw for another 240 against PSU.
But the OSU quarterback is more experienced, more refined, and -- in O'Brien's estimation -- certainly better. Penn State's head coach didn't heap that kind of praise ("One of the top five players in the country") upon Gardner.
But, against Miller, Penn State knows its backs are up against a wall that stands 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds. He accounted for three-quarters of the OSU offense when playing the blue jerseys last season. He can make plays outside of the pocket. He can mix up his passes to Philly Brown (33 catches, 453 yards, 6 TDs) and Devin Smith (30 catches, 434 yards, 6 TDs).
Every team is aware of him on every play. PSU linebacker Glenn Carson swore he'd spend "well over 10 hours" reclining in the film room and watching tape of just Ohio State's quarterback.
"Definitely," he said, "containing Braxton is one of the emphases of this week."
Miller dominated PSU inside the intimidating confines of Beaver Stadium last season. Now, the dual-threat QB will perform in front of a friendly scarlet-and-gray crowd that numbers in the six figures.
The challenge Saturday night won't be any easier for this defense. But, for Obeng-Agyapong and the rest of his teammates, they're hoping they don't see anymore repeats of that 1-yard run. They want to atone for it -- and give OSU something to think about over the next year.
Each player was ranked based on his production, performance and importance to the team. Here's the top 10:
1. WR Allen Robinson: Does this one really need to be explained? Without Robinson, there might not be much of a passing attack. He's been incredibly dependable, he can turn short receptions into long passes, and he can make huge catches when the game calls for it. It's debatable whether he's the best overall offensive player in the conference, but it's clear he's the MVP to his team. He might just be the best receiver in school history.
2. DT DaQuan Jones: He entered the season with quite a bit of fanfare, as Gil Brandt named him the nation's best senior defensive tackle. But he's lived up to those expectations -- actually, he might have even surpassed them. He leads the conference in tackles-for-loss (8.5), and he's second on the team in tackles (31.5). And, get this, no one on Penn State -- not even the linebackers -- boasts more solo tackles than his 24. He stepped up after Jordan Hill's departure, and he's a big reason why teams have struggled to run inside.
4. LB Glenn Carson: There hasn't been a lot of consistency on the defense, and that's what makes Carson so important. He's not the flashiest player to ever don the Blue and White, but he gets the job done week in and week out. He leads the team in tackles (34.5), and he's one of the leaders on this defense. He won't end up on the semifinalist list for the Bednarik Award, but he deserves credit for helping shore up the middle of this defense. He's a big reason why PSU has the nation's No. 19 run defense.
5. RB Bill Belton: Let the debate begin. Who's been more valuable to this team -- Belton or ZZ? Belton gets the slight edge right now after a strong game against Michigan, which saw him make a key fourth-and-1 run in addition to the game-winning touchdown. He's made some nice catches this season, has averaged 5.3 yards a carry -- a full yard per carry more than the other guy -- and come up big in clutch situations. Belton looks like the surprise of the offense so far this season.
6. RB Zach Zwinak: OK, OK, let's address the elephant in the room. He did not have a good game against Michigan. At all. But point to another Penn State player who has had six strong games. It's not easy. He's been the workhorse, the player who can pick up short yardage and wear a defense down. He's had eight rushing touchdowns so far this year, and he's played no small role in PSU's No.17-ranked red-zone offense. He still leads the team with 393 rushing yards.
7. LB Stephen Obeng-Agyapong: Think about just how important he's been this season, especially when Mike Hull went down. Maybe he's not the best linebacker in recent memory, but he gets bonus points for switching positions and exceeding expectations. The Nittany Lions could've walked away with a Week 1 loss had Obeng-Agyapong not stepped up, especially considering that Syracuse targeted him constantly that game. He's already run the gamut of football stats -- he has a sack, a pick, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery so far this season. He's obviously good in pass coverage, and he's been a speedy blitzer when called upon. The safety-turned-linebacker has helped hold this thin corps of LBs together.
8. WR Brandon Moseby-Felder: If we were just going off the U-M game, Moseby-Felder might be as high as second or third. But he missed the Indiana game due to injury and went a span of three weeks with four catches for 39 yards. He's clearly important to this team, as evidenced by that game against the Hoosiers, and he made several critical catches against the Wolverines -- including a back-shoulder grab for a touchdown. If he can keep that up, he'll undoubtedly make his way up this list by the end of the season.
9. CB Jordan Lucas: The secondary has not been a strong point for PSU, but Lucas seems to have had the best season so far. He's a first-year starter, but defensive coordinator John Butler has used him in quite a few ways. He's blitzed off the edge a bit, has been decent in run support and has made some nice plays as cornerback. He leads the team with eight pass deflections, seven pass breakups and an interception. Also, believe it or not, he's second on the team with 4.5 stops in the backfield. He hasn't played error-free football, but he's done well.
10. DE C.J. Olaniyan: He obviously had a monster game against Michigan, as he was named the Big Ten defensive player of the week. But even before that, he was doing pretty well. He's first in sacks (3.5), second in tackles for loss (6.5), fifth in tackles (21.5), and he also has a forced fumble and two pass breakups. If Olaniyan can string together more games like that, he'll earn quite a reputation for himself in the Big Ten. For now, though, his stock is on "hold" because he needs to show he can consistently perform like that.
He watched as more than 100 Penn State players erupted in ecstasy -- spinning around, hugging, pumping their fists -- as they sprinted to the end zone to join their offensive teammates, who clinched a 43-40 win. In quadruple overtime. Against Michigan.
Two seconds after the game had ended, no one was left on the sideline. Maybe Butler was just looking for an assistant coach to embrace after the season-defining win. But he couldn't find one; they had already started a celebration that's sure to last until morning. He instead looked around, turned to the person closest to him and said one line before jogging off.
"We're going to be fine," he said, with no smile on his face but a sense of conviction in his voice. "Write that -- we're going to be fine."
The Nittany Lions didn't punctuate each answer with an exclamation mark. But they won. With dozens of lettermen on the sideline for homecoming, the Nittany Lions did to UM what it did to PSU in 2005: put an end to a perfect season.
"You can't really compare this to anything else; it's pretty much indescribable," quarterback Christian Hackenberg said. "It's just one of those things where if you're fortunate enough to be in this type of game and you experience it -- it's something that's going to stick with you for the rest of your life."
Added tailback Bill Belton: "Oh, I'm going to remember this. Ten years from now? Yeah."
This wasn't a game that anyone "deserved" to win. Then again, maybe no one deserved to lose. Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner paced the sideline, with a headset over his ears, as Brendan Gibbons' 40-yard attempt was blocked in the first overtime. Then, in the third overtime, Michigan's players stared at the ground -- tight end Khalid Hill yelled, "Damn!" -- when Gibbons' missed a 33-yarder.
Both teams had plenty of opportunities to win. Michigan came into this game always making plays when it needed to, while Penn State always seemed to watch the ball bounce in a bad direction. The roles were reversed this time around. Call it luck, call it skill, call it whatever -- but, whatever it was, it couldn't have come at a better time for Penn State.
"I would just say that in a lot of situations, God was on our side today," Robinson said. "We were able to make some plays down the stretch to keep this game alive."
Safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong promised after the UCF loss that a game like that wouldn't happen again. Then Indiana happened. And wideout Eugene Lewis took to Twitter to let everyone know PSU was better than that. If PSU loses this game? Well, at some point, you stop believing it gets better. Those words don't have meaning if the losses pile up.
Bill O'Brien usually heads into every game by taking the dais and telling the media that every game is important. This week, he said he'd be crazy to say this was just another game. It wasn't. Win or lose, this was going to be a turning point for the Lions.
And, for the first time this season, it turned out the right way for Penn State.
"I'm just so jacked-up and so happy because you're putting it out on the line every single play," linebacker Mike Hull said. "This says we're a resilient bunch of guys."
Offensive tackle Garry Gilliam lingered beneath the tunnel and slapped hands with the fans. Linebacker Glenn Carson jumped around as if he were at a track meet. And fans, many of whom wore the same color for a stadium-wide "White Out," didn't move from their seats minutes after the game had ended and the Wolverines had already retired to their locker room.
Penn State had answered the questions by scoring 10 points in the final seven minutes of the fourth quarter to force overtime; then enduring a swing of emotions -- unlike any game either team has played this season -- and coming out with a win.
But, overall, the answers all revolved one simple theme. And it's one these fans can head home through snarled traffic with in mind.
These Nittany Lions are going to be just fine.
Expectations last year were low. Students walked around campus with "We Still Are ..." plastered on their T-shirts and in their minds. The team, held together by shoestrings and their dimple-chinned coach, came out of nowhere to capture the admiration of Big Ten coaches and the respect of many who sat in front of their couches on Saturday afternoons and watched the Nittany Lions pummel teams that many thought they'd get pounded by.
The defense, without Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti, isn't the same. The tremendous story of a determined Matt McGloin has given way to a talented true freshman trying to find his footing. The lack of scholarships, whether or not O'Brien wants to keep discussing them, has impacted the team.
The narrative has clearly shifted. And it sure seems as if O'Brien and the rest of these Lions are aware of that.
Last October, on the Tuesday before the Ohio State game, O'Brien took the dais like he has every week and discussed the upcoming opponent. He was asked about the importance of the home game, just as he's always been. And this was his response on Oct. 27, 2012: "I think every game we play is a very important game here at Penn State. I would say that for every team. ... And this year we only get the chance to lay it on the line 12 times; 12 Saturdays. So every game for us is a very, very big game."
Contrast that with what a feisty O'Brien said on Tuesday before this weekend's contest against Michigan. A reporter asked if he needed to emphasize to this team not to buy into the hype, that this is just another game.
"No," O'Brien said. "We tell them, 'Look, this is an exciting opportunity. Penn State-Michigan. ESPN. 5 o'clock. 108,000 [fans]. You got Nittanyville going crazy over there.'
"It'd be crazy to think this is just another game."'
It would be crazy. This isn't just another game because this isn't last season. Fans' memories are shorter than coaching tenures nowadays and some of same ones who wait around at Damon's every Thursday in hopes for O'Brien's autograph after his radio show have logged onto message boards and spit venom about how Joe Paterno never would've lost to Indiana. And how defensive coordinator John Butler should be fired.
Penn State is 3-2 right now. That has to be stated because, by the looks of the record alone, it seems as if it might be premature to inch closer to the proverbial panic button. Well, it's not.
Stephen Obeng-Agyapong said after the UCF loss that the defense's performance was just a one-time mistake, a bad day. It wouldn't happen again. Then Indiana happened. And Eugene Lewis said on Twitter, "We going to be better promise that."
You can only believe so many times that it's going to get better. And that's why Saturday's contest against Michigan is paramount to the Nittany Lions. Win; and all the concern, all the message-board fodder, all the doubt -- that can be looked back upon and labeled an overreaction. Lose, and those generalizations and critiques seem about right, especially with a tougher Ohio State team up next.
O'Brien likes to say he's not a genie. He also said Tuesday he's no psychologist or psychiatrist. Well, he's no magician either. Different reporters, fans and analysts have their own ideas about why Penn State has struggled. It's the lack of leadership or the lack of talent or maybe a play-calling problem. Maybe it's a combination of the three.
But, whatever the exact issues are, the only panacea is winning. And O'Brien isn't the only one who knows that.
"Penn State vs. Michigan has always been a big-time game," safety Malcolm Willis said. "And I'd be lying to you to tell you it wasn't."
The Early Offer: March 5
BIG TEN SCOREBOARD
Final Washington State 45 Colorado State 48 Final 20 Fresno State 20 25 USC 45 Final Buffalo 24 San Diego State 49 Final Tulane 21 Louisiana-Lafayette 24
Final Pittsburgh 30 Bowling Green 27 Final Utah State 21 23 Northern Illinois 14
Final Marshall 31 Maryland 20 Final Syracuse 21 Minnesota 17 Final Brigham Young 16 Washington 31
Final Rutgers 16 Notre Dame 29 Final Cincinnati 17 North Carolina 39 Final Miami (FL) 9 18 Louisville 36 Final Michigan 14 Kansas State 31
Final Middle Tennessee 6 Navy 24 Final Ole Miss 25 Georgia Tech 17 Final 10 Oregon 30 Texas 7 Final 14 Arizona State 23 Texas Tech 37
Final Arizona 42 Boston College 19 Final Virginia Tech 12 17 UCLA 42 Final Rice 7 Mississippi State 44 Final 24 Duke 48 21 Texas A&M 52
Final Nebraska 24 22 Georgia 19 Final UNLV 14 North Texas 36 Final Iowa 14 16 LSU 21 Final 19 Wisconsin 24 9 South Carolina 34 Final 5 Stanford 20 4 Michigan State 24 Final 15 UCF 52 6 Baylor 42
Final 13 Oklahoma State 31 8 Missouri 41 Final 12 Clemson 40 7 Ohio State 35