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Monday, October 8, 2012
PSU can't forget O'Brien's instant impact

By Adam Rittenberg

Shortly after Penn State rallied past Northwestern on Saturday for its fourth straight win, the Twitterverse began blowing up with praise for coach Bill O'Brien.
O'Brien deserves every single tribute he's getting right now.

Penn State
Bill O'Brien and the Nittany Lions have won four straight games.
He stepped into a difficult situation at Penn State in January that got even tougher in July when the NCAA hammered the program with severe sanctions, prompting an exodus of players, including standout running back Silas Redd and top receiver Justin Brown. If that wasn't enough, Penn State started the season 0-2 after a multitude of missed field goals at Virginia.

Forget about Penn State's bleak future. The present looked gloomy as well.

But O'Brien and his players refused to tap out. Remember when O'Brien talked this summer about how it'll be "time to punch back" at Penn State when the games begin? While many counted them out, the Lions have thrown a flurry of haymakers the past four weeks, dropping their opponents to the mat. Despite a reduced roster, Penn State is playing inspired ball on both sides of the ball, getting big lifts from linebacker Michael Mauti, quarterback Matt McGloin, wide receiver Allen Robinson, defensive end Deion Barnes and many others.

We'll see how the rest of the season plays out for Penn State, but O'Brien, a first-time head coach, has guided the ship through the rockiest of waters so far.

As Penn State exhales during an open week, Nittany Nation should take stock in what O'Brien has done. Remember what you've seen the past four weeks, especially in an offense that had little leadership the past few years and returned almost no firepower from 2011. Remember how O'Brien transformed McGloin from one of the Big Ten's worst quarterbacks into one of its best. Remember how O'Brien took a weakness (field goal kicking) against Northwestern and turned it into a strength (5-for-6 on fourth down). Remember how you've felt after these victories. Write it down and store it away.

The reality is things almost certainly will get tougher for Penn State in the coming seasons. While the initial shock of the sanctions led to the roster departures, the harshest penalties -- scholarship reductions -- are still on the way. Although O'Brien lost some key pieces for this season, he still retained most of a senior class that featured several stars and many solid accomplished players taking the field with tremendous determination after an unfathomable offseason. That class will be gone in 2013.

Can O'Brien keep wining at Penn State? Maybe. He has defied expectations to this point and has Penn State in the mix for the Leaders Division championship. But a coach can only do so much with 65 scholarship players in the Big Ten. Penn State's current problems in the kicking game -- an area where depth or lack thereof often shows up the most -- might be symptomatic of what's to come in other areas because of a reduced roster.

This post isn't meant to depress Penn State fans. But fans can turn on a coach in a hurry when the losing begins. Penn State's administration should and will be patient with O'Brien in the coming seasons, but it's always harder for fans.

Although the NCAA scholarship sanctions end in 2017, O'Brien might not have a full roster to work with until 2020. The current roster is as close to a complete team as he'll have at Penn State for a while. It's why he should be largely judged now rather than later. If O'Brien indeed wins Big Ten Coach of the Year -- right now, he's the favorite -- the award should resonate for years to come. It doesn't mean he's a nationally elite coach yet, but he's certainly a much better coach than the guy many disgruntled Penn State fans thought they were getting in January.

O'Brien has given Penn State fans a reason to celebrate and, as the signs and T-shirts in the stands say, Billieve in the future of the program.

That future will be tough at times, which is why O'Brien's immediate impact in Happy Valley should not be forgotten.