National Columnist

Penn State, O'Brien are doing too much right to just look the other way

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This is pretty impressive, what Penn State is doing. You know that, right? And you know it's OK for someone like me to notice.

Right?

It feels wrong. I'll grant you that. For 12 months Penn State was the nightmare that wouldn't end. Now it feels like the nightmare that shouldn't end -- not yet, anyway. We can't let this go. Not yet. Pedophile Jerry Sandusky was sentenced just a few weeks ago. Some of the school leaders who looked the other way await trial to answer for their own cowardice. A gelatinous book about Joe Paterno is still considered a recent release.

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This whole story -- Sandusky, Paterno, Penn State -- has been an ominous cloud. It's too soon for a silver lining.

And yet, it's impressive what the 2012 Penn State football team is doing. It's impressive what new Penn State coach Bill O'Brien is doing. These returning players. The freshmen. Impressive, all of them.

I mean, look -- Penn State was supposed to be awful. Some of its best players transferred before the season, stars like 1,000-yard rusher Silas Redd and all-conference punter/kicker Anthony Fera and 35-catch receiver Justin Brown. The NCAA hammered the Nittany Lions for the Sandusky atrocity, letting players transfer without penalty and taking away scholarships and even removing the recruiting carrot of the postseason. The NCAA didn't give Penn State the death penalty, but it looked close. It looked like an NCAA-induced coma.

Only, here they are. Penn State is awake and alert and winning. The Nittany Lions have won five games in a row, and despite their lack of depth they're not wearing down -- they're getting stronger. After losing the opener to still-unbeaten Ohio and then missing more field goals in a one-point loss to Virginia than Anthony Fera missed in all of 2011, Penn State defeated Navy and Temple and Illinois. Those wins weren't much to look it, but they were followed by a victory against previously undefeated Northwestern and then a rout at Kinnick Stadium, where Iowa found itself on the wrong end of a 38-14 score.

Only three Big Ten teams are undefeated in conference play, and Penn State is one of them. It plays another, Ohio State, on Saturday -- and some odds makers have Penn State favored to win.

None of this was supposed to happen. Not for this team. And not with this coach. The hiring of Bill O'Brien was met by a universal meh. His career trajectory? Not exactly meteoric. Once a highly regarded assistant at Georgia Tech, O'Brien stumbled in stops at Maryland and Duke and limped to the NFL in 2007 to be a nondescript "offensive assistant" under Patriots coach Bill Belichick. O'Brien climbed the coaching ladder in New England -- receivers coach, then quarterbacks, then offensive coordinator in 2011 -- but the last two offensive coordinators under Belichick to become head coaches were Charlie Weis and Josh McDaniels.

So when Penn State hired Bill O'Brien ... meh.

But it worked. Not a question, not a doubt. O'Brien has been brilliant, a national coach of the year candidate. He has done wonders with quarterback Matt McGloin, who labored under the previous regime. Hell, the whole Penn State offense labored under the previous regime, as Joe Paterno forgot more football than his son Jay ever knew. That's a vicious combination, the father's inattentiveness coupled with the son's inability, and it undercut the once-grand tradition of Penn State football.

And then Jerry Sandusky ripped out its soul, aided by the negligence of the people in charge of Penn State football. Outsiders were furious, shocked and disgusted, and they -- we -- are still furious, shocked and disgusted. That's one part of the Penn State story, the worst part. The biggest part.

But the 2012 football team is another part of the Penn State story -- and make no mistake, it's part of it. The NCAA sanctions from the Sandusky/Paterno years are affecting this team, so of course this team is part of that story.

So is this season, this remarkable season in which a decimated Penn State team led by an inexperienced head coach is winning games it's not supposed to win. Despite what so many people wanted, the Nittany Lions didn't go away. They haven't gone anywhere -- not in the dumper, not even into mediocrity.

Where they go from here, who knows? They won't go to the Big Ten title game or to a bowl, because that's the way the NCAA wanted it. The Penn State of Joe Paterno, Graham Spanier and Tim Curley had a monster in its midst and didn't try to stop it, so the NCAA hit Penn State hard. No complaints here.

If Penn State beats Ohio State and goes on to finish atop the Leaders Division, some of its fans will use the opportunity to bash the NCAA anew. A small but loud pocket of tasteless Penn State fans have played the victim card throughout this process, and it's people like that who make people like me want to ignore the 2012 Penn State football team.

But that wouldn't be fair to receiver Allen Robinson and linebacker Michael Mauti and defensive end Deion Barnes. They are this Penn State, not that one -- and this Penn State has been awfully good.

Hard not to notice.


Gregg Doyel is a columnist for CBSSports.com. He covered the ACC for the Charlotte Observer, the Marlins for the Miami Herald, and Brooksville (Fla.) Hernando for the Tampa Tribune. He was 4-0 (3 KO's!) as an amateur boxer, and volunteers for the ALS Association. Follow Gregg Doyel on Twitter.
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