Senior College Football Columnist

Midseason Report: With Nittany Lions at 4-2, O'Brien is coach of year so far


O'Brien has brought hope to Happy Valley, which is still reeling from the Sandusky scandal. (AP)  
O'Brien has brought hope to Happy Valley, which is still reeling from the Sandusky scandal. (AP)  

Let's see Nick Saban lose his kicker, leading rusher and a backup quarterback.

Imagine Steve Spurrier going for it on fourth down -- not because he is college football's excitable boy -- but because he has to.

Lop off 16 scholarship athletes from Chip Kelly's speedy roster and see how that slows down the Ducks.

That is a snapshot of Bill O'Brien's world at the moment. He's doing quite well, considering the circumstances. Arguably better than the three coaching superstars listed above if they were in the same situation. But they couldn't be -- ever. That's why Penn State's rookie head coach is my national coach of the year halfway through this 2012 season.

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What O'Brien and his staff have accomplished has to be viewed through a different lens. Burdened with what is only the beginning of the NCAA penalties applied due to the Sandusky scandal in July, a 4-2 record is a hell of accomplishment. That's good or better -- arguably -- than Saban, Spurrier or Kelly could have done under similar circumstances.

So good that if the current four-year bowl ban hadn't been applied, the Nittany Lions would be tied for first in the Big Ten's Leaders Division. So good that after everything in the past year, Penn State is only one game off the pace of Joe Paterno's last team.

So good that the Nittany Lions are a couple of plays away from being 6-0. So good that there is football life in a Happy Valley that hasn't been this happy in a while.

"We've got a long way to go," O'Brien said when informed of his halfway honor. "There's a lot of great coaches. I've only coached six games."

Yes, the man is humbled. There will be trying days ahead. But perhaps his biggest contribution at this point is hope. Determine if any program could function efficiently with these circumstances: At least 10 Penn State players have transferred, given immediate freedom to do so by the NCAA. That group included 1,200-yard rusher Silas Redd and kicker Anthony Fera.

Translated to Tuscaloosa, that would remove tailback Eddie Lacy and kicker Jeremy Shelley from the equation. They have accounted for 38 percent of the Tide's scoring (93 of 243 points) this season.

O'Brien estimates he is operating with only 69 scholarship players. While not altogether crippling -- Southern California won at Oregon last season with 53 scholarship players -- it is attrition that will debilitate Penn State in degrees. The NCAA has mandated the program will have to be down to 65 scholarships -- basically equivalent to the FCS (I-AA) limit -- in two years.

Try playing a Big Ten, or any major conference schedule, with those limitations.

"It's hard to explain," O'Brien said. "I've been doing this for 20 years. I've been around what I would call four or five what I would consider special teams, including two Super Bowl teams. Whatever the talent level difference, the one thing those teams have in common is great resolve."

This is one of those teams, providing maybe a sliver of light in a very, very dark tunnel ahead.

The kicker situation has turned a rookie head coach into the Western Pennsylvania version of Mike Leach. Penn State has gone for it on fourth down 20 times this season (converting 13) not because O'Brien is trying to reinvent the game, but because he has no other option. His best kicker, Sam Ficken, went one-for-five in a one-point loss to Virginia.

Without being dainty -- Ficken is three for nine in field goals and has missed two of 21 extra points -- it's hard to have faith in a guy who might have no faith in himself.

"I was pretty up front with him," O'Brien said, recalling the Virginia game. "I said, 'Look, you know, you've got a bunch of guys pulling hard out here. You've got one job to do.'"

There have been inspirational football stories wrapped in a societal tragedy. Linebacker Michael Matui was one of the outspoken players declaring his loyalty when it looked like the whole roster would transfer.

"I can't say enough about that kid," O'Brien said. "He's a guy that has been a tremendous leader. He came out and said a lot of things in the summer and he's backed it up."

Two walk-ons have earned scholarships since training camp. One of those, safety Jesse Della Valle, is also returning kicks and punts. His muffed punt helped Northwestern land Penn State in an 11-point fourth-quarter hole 10 days ago. Then Penn State provided a metaphor for what will have to happen the next four years.

It rallied. Twenty points in the fourth quarter. There are going to have to be a lot of rallies in the future.

"We had a lot of team meetings with them in the summer time when the sanctions came out, a lot of those things are about being committed to each other," O'Brien said. "We knew some guys would leave. The guys that stayed are led by -- it's hard to explain -- these seniors who are very, very focused on knowing there are only six games left in their Penn State careers."

One of those seniors, Matt McGloin, is one of only two quarterbacks on scholarship. He's a former walk-on himself.

"These guys," O'Brien said, "are playing their asses off."

The coach should take some credit. If nothing else, he knew this day might come. The NCAA penalties kicked in a contract clause that extended his contract through 2020. If he's committed, by God, Penn State should be committed. McGloin looks like a completely different player. Instead of the upright, slow-footed statue he had been in the past, the pride of Scranton, Pa. has looked practically mobile.

The result is a career year. In 2011, McGloin threw for 1,571 yards. He needs 72 passing yards this week against Iowa to surpass that number. He is tied for the Big Ten lead in touchdown passes (12).

Some of that goes to O'Brien. He's a quarterback guy. That last guy under center he tutored, Tom Brady, did OK for himself.

"A lot of times a fifth year senior grows up because they know this is it," O'Brien said. "He's grown up."

There's going to have to be a lot of growth at Penn State. Not before, a lot of heartache.

For now, O'Brien is selling the NFL. Penn State players can still get there from State College under his watch. He is selling exposure. The NCAA didn't take TV away. He is selling the home game experience, better than a lot of bowls Penn State could play in. Amazingly, the 2013 recruiting class has held together. Top quarterback prospect Christian Hackenberg has stuck to his commitment.

Halfway through this season -- one-eighth of the way through the NCAA sanctions -- Bill O'Brien has held a team and a franchise together. Let's see Saban, Spurrier and Kelly do that.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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