By David Teel
9:34 AM EDT, September 7, 2012
Perhaps Penn State is as bad as its second half against Ohio. Or, maybe Ohio and quarterback Tyler Tettleton are the potential BCS busters some tout them to be.
The truth likely falls in the gray middle, but this much is certain:
* Neither rookie coach Bill O’Brien nor any of his players shoulders a shred of blame for the scandal that could level this once-revered program.
* Moreover, the Nittany Lions will carry unique, unimaginable burdens throughout this season.
All of which shroud Penn State’s game at Virginia on Saturday in intrigue.
It is the Nittany Lions’ first road game and follows a discouraging 24-14 loss to Ohio in the season opener. Playing before 97,186, Penn State led 14-3 at halftime, only to get skunked 21-0 after intermission.
The Nittany Lions committed three turnovers, forced none and yielded 324 yards passing and two touchdown throws by Tettleton, the son of former big-league catcher Mickey Tettleton.
“We turned it over; they didn't turn it over,” O’Brien said this week at his news conference. “They converted on third down in the second half on offense, we didn't convert on our offense on third down in the second half. We had chances to break passes up, make interceptions. We had chances to hit guys that were wide open or catch the ball being wide open, and we did not make those plays, and Ohio did.
“Again, there's no excuses to be made there, but we have in many areas of our football team a young football team. In other areas a little bit more veteran team. So the veterans need to play better, and the younger guys are going to get better. …
“It was an emotional day, but it came down to turnovers, third-down conversions, and that's what it usually comes down to in close games. Hopefully we'll improve on that this week.”
Escaping State College might be the ideal tonic for Penn State. Since the sexual abuse case against former Nittany Lions defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky broke in November, the campus and surrounding communities have been the epicenter of one seismic story after another.
Coach Joe Paterno’s firing and death, and the subsequent removal of his statue. O’Brien’s hiring from the New England Patriots, where he was a respected offensive coordinator. Sandusky’s trial and conviction. The NCAA’s unprecedented sanctioning of the program.
Penn State was 8-1 and riding a seven-game winning streak when the Sandusky relevations hit. The Nittany Lions were 1-3 thereafter.
The accumulated weight must be suffocating. Bring on Charlottesville’s literal and figurative fresh air.
“There’s an element to that, just being able to get on a plane and go play at Virginia,” O’Brien said.
To win at Virginia, Penn State will have to be much better on both sides.
Post-sanction transfers stripped Penn State’s offense of much of its firepower, but a defense that was stout a year ago figured to be again in 2012. Instead, Ohio converted 13-of-21 third downs and gained 499 yards.
“There really hasn’t been an overreaction,” said linebacker Michael Mauti on a media call quoted by the Centre Daily Times. “If anything, guys have been really angry because we didn’t present a good image of what our team is and how much talent we have. That wasn’t our best side.
“We just want to play. If we could play this game (Wednesday), I think we would line up and play. That’s kind of how we feel right now.”
O’Brien understands the sentiment.
“They're frustrated because they watched the tape,” he said, “and everybody sees on tape that there were plays that could have been made that weren't made, and there were coaching mistakes that we could have done a lot better job with, and so we're all a little bit frustrated. Couldn't wait to get back to practice.”
Virginia, which cruised past Richmond by 24 in its opener, is a 10-point favorite. Cavaliers coach Mike London knows the Nittany Lions are hurting and realizes they lost to a quality opponent last week – Ohio won 10 games last season and is ably coached by Frank Solich, formerly at Nebraska.
London also understands the scope of O’Brien’s challenge in digging out from under scholarship reductions and a four-year bowl ban.
“I couldn't imagine having to deal with that,” London said, “and keeping the guys loyal, keeping the guys wanting to come to the school. … He's got a tough job.”
Saturday will be another measure of just how tough.
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