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Kovacevic: They're O'Brien's Lions now

| Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013, 11:08 p.m.
Penn State wide receiver Allen Robinson (8) hauls in a 43-yard pass in front of Eastern Michigan defensive back Willie Creear (4) during the first quarter on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013, at Beaver Stadium in State College.
Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review
Penn State wide receiver Allen Robinson (8) hauls in a 43-yard pass in front of Eastern Michigan defensive back Willie Creear (4) during the first quarter on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013, at Beaver Stadium in State College.

UNIVERSITY PARK — On the occasion of Penn State's 45-7 flattening of an undermanned, overwhelmed Eastern Michigan squad Saturday, one that made for a rousing if predictable home opener before an announced 92,363 at Beaver Stadium, it probably bears reminding where these Nittany Lions were a year ago to the date.

It was Sept. 8, 2012, at Virginia's Scott Stadium.

Here's betting, if you're a fan, you won't want to revisit this feeling again.

The full scope of the university community was reeling not only from the fresh wounds of the Jerry Sandusky scandal but also from seeing the football program reduced to bowing in its home opener to Ohio — that's just Ohio, no State — then going into Virginia and outmuscling the Cavaliers at every turn … only to see poor Sam Ficken whiff on four field goals.

Virginia 17, Penn State 16.

With an 0-2 record, 10 games left against an upgraded slate of opponents and four ominous years of NCAA sanctions left to serve, it had to feel like one yank of the wrong thread could unravel everything.

Didn't happen.

And one man, more than any other, was responsible.

O'Brien capped 2012 with the coaching debut of a generation, elevating the team to eight victories in the final 10 games. The only losses came to No. 7 Ohio State and at No. 18 Nebraska.

And now, after O'Brien rejected NFL overtures — and, not coincidentally, was smartly handed a big raise — the Nittany Lions are 2-0 after an impressive opening salvo against Syracuse and this rout in which Christian Hackenberg passed for 331 yards, Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch each rushed for 108, and the engine of it all, Allen Robinson, added seven catches for 129 yards.

Best of all for the program is that, to date, it's all gone as expected. It's no big deal.

“We're 2-0, and now we've got to move on to a very tough Central Florida team,” O'Brien was saying Saturday of the next opponent. “We'll learn from this. That's it.”

No, sorry, that's not it.

That doesn't do justice to the progress Penn State has made when the most wicked of regressions reasonably could have been expected.

And it especially doesn't do justice to the impact of O'Brien's personality, one that chaotically channels, oh, Chuck Norris, the Dos Equis guy and let's toss in the “Die Hard”-era Bruce Willis for fun.

It's apparent in the intangibles his Nittany Lions have adopted, what O'Brien again called “a great resiliency” Saturday. That trait's been there from the day he took over, it's been there even in the four losses, and it should never be taken for granted. No one likes to hear this, but this team is playing for pride and nothing but. There won't be a bowl game until 2016. There won't be championships of any kind. And it can't be easy motivating in any sport without a trophy at the tunnel's end.

How does he do it?

“First of all, we're a team. We play for each other,” Pat Zerbe, a senior fullback, was saying. “And Coach O'Brien, he's all business, day after day, He tells us to ‘Win the day.' That's it.”

That's pretty smart, I'd say. No benefit to looking any further ahead.

O'Brien's personality is apparent in strategy, too, whether it's his crazy-like-a-fox approach to fourth downs — anything out of the goal posts' shadow is a go — or how he handles struggling players he needs. He stuck by the freshman Hackenberg on Saturday despite three wild early incompletions and a ghastly fumble that handed Eastern Michigan its only touchdown. He stuck by Belton, too, despite an early-season propensity to go down too easily.

In the broader picture, too, he stuck by Ficken — a player he easily could have cast off to save his own face — and that's now being rewarded with a school-record 14 consecutive field goals.

“Can't say enough about the man,” Ficken said.

Above all, though, praise O'Brien for blocking out any noise from the scandal that still resonates just outside his walls, whether it's from the Paternos themselves or the small but annoying group of alumni still prioritizing the program's past over its present.

Flash back again to last year: Minutes after Penn State was upset by Ohio, a Philadelphia reporter asked O'Brien what he imagined Joe Paterno would think of such a loss.

As if that were fair or remotely relevant.

O'Brien brushed off that question, and he's gone beyond that now. He's in control of it all, cool and comfortable in his own skin and in front of the dozens of regular media types who tail his team daily.

Saturday brought a wonderful case in point.

The Nittany Lions used halftime to celebrate more than 50 members of the undefeated 1973 team and retire the No. 22 of John Cappelletti. Afterward, Cappelletti addressed the current team in the locker room.

Here's how Cappelletti characterized that after presenting O'Brien with a commemorative cap on behalf of the 1973 team: “Coach has done such a great job of reaching out to us players from the past, and we're grateful for that.”

Here's how O'Brien characterized it: “It was just a great experience to be able to meet the only Heisman Trophy winner in the history of Penn State, part of a 12-0 team. Coach Paterno used to say that, in the ‘Paterno Poll, they were No. 1, and I would have said the same thing because 12-0 is 12-0.”

Classic O'Brien, huh?

Respectful of the past, including Paterno, but beholden only to what's in front of him today.

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