A couple of weeks ago, Bill O'Brien reminded reporters that his Penn State team, particularly on offense, wasn't exactly ripe with experience. Indeed, a dozen players have made their first career starts for the Nittany Lions at different points this season; only four other teams in FBS have had more rookie starters in 2012.
Game management has been one of the biggest adjustments for Penn State's Bill O'Brien in his debut season as a head coach.
In some cases, like that of sophomore wideout Allen Robinson, those first-year starters are playing like veterans. In others, like right tackle Adam Gress or safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, the inexperience has been more apparent.
For the most part, it's been easy to forget that the head coach is a rookie starter, too.
Yes, the 42-year-old O'Brien has spent the better part of his life and all of his professional life on a football sideline. Penn State marks his fifth stop as a coach. But this is the first year that he's been the boss of bosses, the place where the buck stops. Most would agree that he did a stellar job of presenting a unified front and holding the team together (while working hard to assemble future versions of the team) from January to August.
Game days, though, are another animal for a head coach. The previous guy, name of Paterno, directed 548 of them. O'Brien has directed all of four, earning two relatively comfortable wins and two relatively crushing losses.
This is what he wanted, what most coaches who get into any sport want eventually. This is why he left his post as one of the top assistants at one of the top programs in the NFL. And just as the first month of the season has been a learning experience for many of his players, so has it been for O'Brien.
"When you're an assistant coach, an offensive coordinator, the offense goes out there, you either score, you punt, or you turn it over," he said. "Hopefully you don't punt or turn it over, but you come to the bench and make adjustments with your offense.
"As a head coach, you have to understand one thing is game management. How is the game being played? How is your defense playing? That's going to affect how you call plays on offense. What is going well on offense? You want to stick with that. What can you do that will put the defense in conflict based on what you're doing well offensively? You're thinking about the whole game more."
O'Brien tells his players to break the game into three sections -- scripted, situational, and fourth-quarter. You can see the offensive coordinator in him during the "scripted" portion, the start of the game. Penn State has known exactly what it has wanted to do against each of its first four opponents, and the Nittany Lions have been able to do it, out-scoring their foes 35-0 in the first quarter and 55-9 in the first half.
The "fourth-quarter" portion has been a mixed bag. Penn State's players looked like they ran out of emotional juice in the second half of the loss to Ohio and were never really in the game in the fourth quarter. The Nittany Lions had control of the game late in the wins over Navy and Temple, and Penn State's coaches on both offense and defense got the players in the right spots to beat Virginia in the fourth quarter but were done in by a couple of jump balls and Sam Ficken's foot.
That leaves the "situational" section, the part after the initial dust has settled, the part when many games are truly decided and the part when O'Brien might still be feeling his way. That's precisely the word he used this week -- feel.
"As you get a feel for how the game is going, you can sense that your defense is playing pretty well, so how are you going to call the game offensively?" he said. "That's a totally different role as opposed to being a offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots where you're trying to score 50 points every time you go out on the field."
The head coach has to marry what the offense is doing with what the defense is doing with what the special teams are doing with what (in some cases) the officials are doing. This is all while factoring in what personnel he has to work with and what the opposing coach is up to and how his game plan is changing. It's cooking three different entrees that all have to be served at the exact same moment. It's a skill Paterno knew instinctively after so many years on the sideline. It's a skill his successor has shown an impressive aptitude for to this point but one he is still very much getting accustomed to.
"It's a big difference," O'Brien said. "Just like everybody else in our football program, I'm trying to improve every week and trying to get better."