STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — Whether it’s the nonconference finale against Temple or the annual Big Ten prize fight versus Ohio State, coach Bill O’Brien promises Penn State will take no game lightly.
Not with the Nittany Lions’ season ending in November no matter how well they do in the regular season.
“We only have 12 games this year, so every game for us is a very, very vital football game,” O’Brien said Tuesday. “I would assume our players will come out with a lot of intensity. We’ve only got two more months to play.”
It’s little surprise then that Penn State returned to practice this week eager to get ready for Saturday’s visit from the Owls. The Nittany Lions (1-2) took Saturday night to unwind following the 34-7 victory over Navy before moving on to the next task.
“I don’t think you can ever relax,” center Matt Stankiewitch said. “You practice like you play.”
It’s just mid-September, but the clock is already ticking on Penn State’s season.
The NCAA’s strict sanctions on the program for the way the school handled the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal includes a four-year ban from postseason play. Penn State is eligible to win the Big Ten Leaders division crown since that title is decided by regular-season games.
But the Nittany Lions wouldn’t be eligible for the berth in the Big Ten championship game that comes with winning a division title since that is considered a postseason contest. They can’t go to a bowl game, either.
O’Brien has tried to impress on his team that every game from here on to the Thanksgiving weekend season finale against Wisconsin is huge. Even the one against in-state Temple, which always looks at Penn State as one of its measuring-stick games.
Penn State plays the role of bully in this one-sided rivalry with a 30-game unbeaten streak. Temple last won in 1941, 14-10. But the Owls have recently come close. Last season, Penn State escaped Philadelphia with a 14-10 win after scoring with less than 3 minutes left.
“So I’m glad it’s their Super Bowl, but this is a big game for us, like every single game this year,” O’Brien said. “On November whatever, (this) season is over. So, this is a big game.”
For the first time this season, they enter a game on a roll.
After two emotional losses to start the year, nearly everything clicked last week against Navy. Quarterback Matt McGloin and wideout Allen Robinson (Big Ten bests of 8 catches and 107 receiving yards per game) have become one of the conference’s most prolific pitch-and-catch tandems.
The defense has stepped up its pass rush while forcing four turnovers each of the last two games. And those concerns about the kicking game? Unwarranted last week with the offense scoring four touchdowns, and O’Brien electing to go for it on fourth down inside the 10 on another series.
Penn State didn’t end up converting then. Still, O’Brien said the decision didn’t have anything to do with a lack of confidence in kicker Sam Ficken, who went 1 of 5 on field-goal attempts two weeks ago against Virginia.
“I mean, at the end the day, it’s … fourth and 8. Let’s go. Let’s let it all out there,” he said. “You’ve got a good play call, let’s call it and see if we can score. I don’t think twice about any of that.”
The steady O’Brien presses on undaunted. No matter how the previous play call turned out, he stays even keel. The players seemed to have acquired the same attitude.
Another team leader, linebacker Michael Mauti sounded stoic Tuesday when asked about the team’s mood the last couple days compared to the same points the previous two weeks.
“I can’t tell you it’s not much different,” said Mauti, the conference defensive player of the week after recording 12 tackles and a sack against the Midshipmen. While a lot of players are pleased with their performances, Mauti said, “obviously there’s a lot of room for improvement.”
O’Brien values Mauti’s leadership and locker-room presence. The coach and player have built up such a strong bond that O’Brien said he thinks of his linebacker as someone he’ll stay in touch with the rest of his life.
Both men have been calming influences on a team surrounded by turmoil not of its own doing.
“I would say that right now the team is about the same as they have been since I took the job. I really mean that,” said O’Brien, hired in January. “These guys are resilient, hard-working guys. They understand that it’s just one win.”
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