Penn State looks to overcome inconsistency
After Penn State wrapped up a 3-1 nonconference record with its only loss being a narrow one to now-No. 15 Central Florida, fans expressed confidence that matching the win total of eight from the previous season was well within range.
However, needing to win their final three games - against Purdue (Saturday) and Nebraska at home and at Wisconsin - to get to eight will be a tall order for the Nittany Lions (5-4 overall, 2-3 Big Ten). Their year has been marked by inconsistency, mistakes, and an inability to make the big play on offense or defense.
"We've had an up and down year," Lions coach Bill O'Brien said. "We obviously haven't always coached the best or haven't always played the best, but we've done some good things, too.
"We don't have a lot of margin for error, whether it's coaching or playing. We have to come out ready to go and try to play mistake-free football."
Those whose expectations were higher failed, of course, to consider the scholarship restrictions brought about by the NCAA sanctions handed down in July 2012, which has affected depth at certain positions.
At last report, that number of scholarships was down to 61, 24 fewer than the NCAA maximum. Since O'Brien gave that figure early in the season, he has declined to further discuss the restrictions.
Even with the limitations, the Nittany Lions have shown improvement here and there. Freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg is gaining valuable experience. Junior running back Bill Belton (Winslow Township) has come on by leaps and bounds. Allen Robinson is having a better year than in 2012, when he was named conference receiver of the year. Defensive tackle DaQuan Jones has been dominant at times.
But overall improvement has been slow to come. The offense scored 10 points - worst in the O'Brien era - in last week's loss to Minnesota, Penn State's third straight Big Ten road defeat. The unit has turned the ball over 18 times (a 19th turnover has been on special teams) leading to a margin of minus-7.
The defense struggled mightily against No. 4 Ohio State and in the first half against the Golden Gophers. In conference play, the unit is ninth against the rush and in points and total yards allowed.
"I think this football team has improved in some areas, and other areas it hasn't improved," O'Brien said. "I think a lot of that is, we have to do a better job of coaching. I think it comes down to, can you coach it better and figure out a different way to do it?"
Except for the pulsating final drive of regulation against Michigan that forced overtime, big plays have been hard to come by.
"The biggest thing is that we have to make plays," guard John Urschel said. "There are crucial situations in the game when we have a drive going when we need to get points. We need to be successful. We need to minimize mistakes."
The defense has suffered with injuries at linebacker, first to Mike Hull (knee) and now to Ben Kline (torn pectoral muscle). Ryan Keiser, a key figure at safety, has been playing while recovering from a broken hand.
"I think every team out there has to deal with injuries and that's just the way it goes," O'Brien said, "especially at this time of the year."
Life should get better. Thanks to a curb in the restrictions, O'Brien will have 20 scholarships for the Class of 2014.
Right now, though, the focus is on cleaning up the mistakes and playing solid football.
"It's just a little bit up and down, so we've got to try to smooth it out over the next few weeks starting with Purdue," O'Brien said. "We have to try to get it to where it's on more of an uphill slant, as far as improvment goes, and not as much up and down."