The average Penn State fan doesn't want to hear that Ohio appears to be as advertised -- a strong, balanced, disciplined MAC team with a playmaking, relentless quarterback who played as good a second half as anyone in college football will this week. He doesn't want to hear that there were some serious indications that the Nittany Lion offense is capable of some big things this season. He doesn't want to hear that there are 11 games left and that seasons are not made or broken on one game.
Matt McGloin had a great start but cooled off in the second half.
All he knows right now, as he drives home to Erie or York or Wilkes-Barre or Baltimore or Newark, is that Penn State is 0-1, and the Bill O'Brien Era has already lost a lot of its shine. The uncertain future so many had feared when the NCAA handed down its stunning sanctions in July is here a lot quicker than imagined.
And that is the reality O'Brien and his disappointed team face right now -- convincing the average fan, or the casual fan or the die-hard fan, that Saturday's 24-14 loss to the Bobcats was an aberration, a momentary speed bump on the road to the season they've talked about for months. The Nittany Lions will have their chance to make their case Saturday in Charlottesville against a quality Virginia team that wasted little time jumping on Richmond. First, let's take a closer look at a loss that was of a very different variety than Penn State had endured in Beaver Stadium in recent years.
It is difficult to reconcile the fact that the Penn State team that, in the second half, did not score a point, crossed Ohio's 45-yard line just ONCE and compiled a grand total of 115 yards was the same team that had racked up 130 yards passing in the first quarter, held a good Ohio offense to 84 yards on its first four possessions and went into the locker room with a comfortable 14-3 lead despite shooting itself in the foot on more than one occasion.
If you're one of those fans who wants to pick through the rubble to find signs that the rest of the season holds some promise, they are there. The passing game in the first half was all of the things O'Brien had promised it would be -- inventive, efficient, varied and effective. Allen Robinson and Kyle Carter are stars in the making. Alex Kenney and Shawney Kersey showed they have more skills than speed and Matt McGloin looked, for a half at least, as good as he's looked at any point in an up-and-down career.
The defense, early on, looked sharp and aggressive and, though it didn't ever really have the Bobcats on the run, didn't put itself in many bad spots, either and looked a lot more equipped to handle Ohio's no-huddle attack than it did against Houston's offense in the bowl game. Nyeem Wartman gave the team and the crowd a boost with a big special teams play.
But there many nits to pick in the first half, too. Bill Belton lost a fumble that wiped out a great scoring chance on Penn State's opening drive. The rebuilt offensive line gave McGloin time to throw but opened few sizable holes, the kind that lead to big gains, for Belton and Derek Day. The receivers dropped at least three good throws by McGloin, who overshot (or did not see) open receivers on at least as many plays that could have gone for touchdowns. The Nittany Lions had 237 yards but just 14 points to show for them at the half.
The Nittany Lions didn't make the plays they needed to to insure themselves against the kind of freak plays that can swing momentum and get any team back in almost any game -- and the Bobcats came up with those plays in the second half. One of Tyler Tettleton's only bad throws of the afternoon could have been picked by Stephen Obeng-Agyapong or Malcolm Willis or fluttered harmlessly incomplete. Instead, it popped off Obeng-Agyapong's hands directly to receiver Landon Smith, who took the gift into the end zone in a play that swung the momentum over to Ohio's side. Once the Bobcats had it, they didn't relinquish it.
As Penn State's defenders crumpled to the ground with cramps, Tettleton made tough third-down throw after tough third-down throw. Bullish running back Beau Blankenship charged through big holes (where was Penn State's defensive line in the second half?), then plowed through arm tackles once he hit the second level. The Nittany Lion offense came up with a nice gain here or there but didn't sustain anything.
Ohio sensed it could win, decided it wanted to and did it. Penn State, which had the game in hand for two quarters, never stepped up and let the Bobcats know it wasn't their day, even after an impassioned speech by linebacker Michael Mauti before the fourth quarter.
Afterward, O'Brien wore the loss on his sleeve, looking not like a man who had lost his confidence or his vision but who had realized that the task ahead of him was going to be perhaps more trying than he had anticipated. He took full responsibility for the loss -- a tactic often used by his predecessor, Joe Paterno -- and kept his answers firm and short.
O'Brien's team will score more than 14 points in a game this season. It won't likely give up 300 yards in the second half again. But the coach, his players and fans of all backgrounds saw the kind of performance this team can deliver if it isn't at its best, which could serve as either a sharp and necessary wakeup call or a weight that sits heavily on the Nittany Lions' collective shoulders as they try to move on with their season.
It doesn't matter how good Ohio was on Saturday, or how good the Bobcats will be at year's end. The Nittany Lions have to be better -- much better -- and they know it.