Penn State focused on football

BY MATT CABEL | AUGUST 29, 2013 5:00 AM

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The Penn State Nittany Lions have put the sanctions that plagued last year’s off-season and made national attention behind them and are once again focused on one thing heading into the 2013 season: football.

“This time last year, [the media] was peppering us with non-football questions,” offensive lineman John Urschel said at Big Ten media days in Chicago on July 24. “This year, for the most part, everything has been focused on football. It’s good to see the questions from [the media] reflect what our focus is.”

The Nittany Lion’s 2012 campaign outlook looked bleak in the wake of the NCAA’s repercussions and a loss to the Ohio Bobcats of the MAC. But Penn State head coach Bill O’Brien and his team didn’t let outside voices change how it played, even though any number of wins would amount to a bowl berth.

In his first year, O’Brien was a bright light for a historic program quickly cast into darkness and has the full respect of his players and coaching staff.

Now in his second year, the recipient of the 2012 Coach of the Year award wants to focus on making it easier for his team to score in the final two minutes of the first half by managing his timeouts more efficiently. He wants to communicate with his coordinators during in-game situations; he wants to use practices to better prepare for specifics of each opponent they’ll face.

But most importantly, he never wants to be complacent with where he is coaching.

“I always want to try to improve,” O’Brien said at Big Ten media day. “Obviously, never ever be satisfied with where you’re at.”

The team has not yet decided on its starting quarterback. O’Brien said on Aug. 22 that the decision may not even be made until his team’s first offensive snap against Syracuse on Aug. 31. But both candidates — Tyler Ferguson, a junior-college transfer and Christian Hackenberg — a true freshman will play during the season.

“I think the biggest thing again is that we have two really good young quarterbacks,” O’Brien said in a Penn State teleconference on Aug. 22. “My biggest focus and concern is with the football team. The only thing I care about is if the football team understands the direction that we are headed and I believe the football team understands where we're at right now. We have two really good young quarterbacks and those guys will both have to be ready to play for us this year.”

The team will open its season in MetLife Stadium against Syracuse, with home games against Eastern Michigan, Central Florida, Kent State, Michigan, Illinois, Purdue, and Nebraska. The team will travel for games at Indiana, Ohio State, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.

With sanctions, no bowl eligibility and youth at quarterback, the odds may be against the Nittany Lions for O’Brien’s second season. But those facts don’t matter to his players.

All that does is winning.

“We want to will ourselves to get victories,” safety Malcolm Willis said. “We have a chip on our shoulders. A lot of people think that we shouldn’t be where we are, a lot of people underestimate us. We’re going to be the underdogs in a lot of our games and, to be honest, we wouldn’t have it any other way.

“We like to be the underdog. It gives us something to prove — there’s no pressure on us. If we’re the underdog, we’re not expected to do anything. Everything we do will be an accomplishment in everyone else’s eyes.”

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