STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — First game for Penn State football’s new era? Check. First road trip? Out of the way.
Now that first win of the season is in the books, too. Things may finally be getting back to normal for the Nittany Lions — at least for what counts as “normal” these days in Happy Valley.
“It’s another page forward, another week, another game,” linebacker Michael Mauti said after Penn State’s 34-7 win Saturday over Navy. “To get that first win gets the momentum back a little bit.”
After two season-opening losses, Penn State (1-2) can move on with the confidence they can win under new coach Bill O’Brien. The former New England Patriots offensive coordinator has been the steady rock for a team that has endured scandal and NCAA sanctions.
It’s no surprise then that running back Michael Zordich surprised O’Brien with the game ball in a jubilant locker room afterward.
“All right, let’s get another next week,” Zordich said in the postgame huddle before the players broke it up by yelling “Family!” after a three-count.
Players didn’t panic after two draining losses to start the season, though there was a sense of urgency.
No team wants to start 0-3.
Penn State forced four turnovers and capitalized on seven Navy penalties to finally get that morale-boosting win.
“The one thing that winning does is it cures a lot of things. Winning also breeds confidence,” O’Brien said.
Now O’Brien can show that all the changes he installed in the offseason can lead to victory, like the revamped strength-and-conditioning program or the altered practice routine to mirror an NFL-style practice.
“There’s a reward for that and we know how to win, and we can win,” O’Brien said. “Now we have a new staff that knows how to win. These players know how to win.”
Mauti (12 tackles) and emerging redshirt freshman defensive end Deion Barnes (five tackles, sack, forced fumble) led an active front seven that applied pressure on Navy quarterback Trey Miller, who was slowed by an injured right ankle. A secondary that had been maligned the first two weeks with giving up by plays on third downs played well, led by safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, who had a couple stirring open-field tackles and a forced fumble among his nine stops.
On offense, quarterback Matt McGloin and receiver Allen Robinson continued to click as one of the Big Ten’s top passing combinations. Robinson, a sophomore, is stepping up quite nicely as the featured receiver in O’Brien’s offense and leads the Big Ten in receptions (24) and receiving yards per game (107.3).
And Zordich (11 carries, 50 yards) and Curtis Dukes (11 carries, 47 yards) did just enough to balance the offense and make Penn State forget that top two tailbacks Bill Belton (left ankle) and Derek Day (left shoulder) were sidelined by injuries.
Mainly a fullback, Zordich played more in single-back sets against Navy — his most extensive playing time running the ball since coming out of high school in Youngstown, Ohio.
“We need a win to get rolling and it felt good to be able to have that kind of responsibility,” Zordich said.
He and Mauti were the senior leaders who stepped up days after the NCAA levied strict sanctions on Penn State for the school’s handling of the child sex abuse scandal involving retired assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. Players were given exceptions to leave in light of the penalties including a four-year bowl ban and steep scholarship cuts.
Zordich and Mauti helped keep more than 90 percent of the team together after re-affirming their allegiance to Penn State.
“Like I’ve said from Day 1, there’s nothing any of us can do about the NCAA. All we can do is play under the rules in which they say to play under,” O’Brien said. “So that’s what we’re doing and these kids have really stuck together. This group of players in the locker room right now (is) just really high character kids that have come together.”
Temple visits Beaver Stadium on Sept. 22. In the locker room huddle after the Navy win, O’Brien told his players to have a good time celebrating Saturday night before returning Sunday to start getting ready for the Owls.
Back to the normal routine for Penn State.
“Great job, but that’s just one,” O’Brien said. “It’s only one.”