Sunday, October 28, 2012

Bill O'Brien's bad day

The new Penn State coach has the worst game of his brief career, and the Lions drop The Big One to Ohio State, 35-23. 

Most of the time when a head coach falls on the sword after a game, he's being a little disingenuous.

Or, a lot disingenuous.

It's a psychological game the coach plays with his team and the media. Take the burden off the players, blame yourself, shift the focus where you want it, and let the media project your humility, false though it frequently is in college football.

The players, however, know the drill, too. When they get to practice on Monday (or sometimes sooner), they find out exactly what the coach really thought of the previous game. Often it's not remotely connected to the coach's post-game comments.

This little tango goes on all the time. Just listen to Nick Saban talk.

So, surely there was some of that disingenuousness in Bill O'Brien's post-game remarks after PSU's deflating 35-23 defeat to Ohio State on Saturday in front of a rocking, sellout Beaver Stadium whiteout.

O'Brien needs the team to gather itself, shed the disappointment and refocus quickly on Purdue. As the saying goes, he can't let the Buckeyes beat PSU again this week.

But when O'Brien declared afterward, "I need to improve on the gameplan to help our guys,'' and "I could have adjusted better," well, he wasn't just spouting coachspeak.

He was dead-on accurate, too.

O'Brien, in his first year as a head coach and 10 months into the job, finally had his first bad day Saturday.

Ohio U. and Virginia weren't good days for O'Brien, but they weren't bad ones, either.

This was a bad one.

The Buckeyes played a very good game, and Braxton Miller is the real deal, but PSU could have won, or at least brought it down to the wire. Instead, it was over with six minutes to go.

Now, O'Brien's not the one out there dropping passes, or dropping interceptions, or dropping kickoffs, or snapping the ball too soon, or missing tackles, or jumping offsides.

But O'Brien and staff didn't seem to have the team in the right frame of mind to play well at the outset, didn't have the right gameplan to outperform the Buckeyes, and didn't make the in-game adjustments to help PSU win.

  • Instead of the businesslike demeanor we saw at Iowa, vs. Northwestern and at Illinois, the team seemed to have too much nervous energy that led to several early mistakes on offense, a string of pre-snap penalties and general unforced errors.
  • Instead of ramping up the "NASCAR" offense and taking it to the Buckeyes at warp speed, O'Brien dialed it back, allowing the OSU defense to dictate at times, which led to protection issues.
  • And when a couple of atrocious calls - the personal foul late hit by Adrian Amos, the phantom hold by Brad Bars on the punt - led to Ohio State's offense wearing down the PSU defense late in the first half, the Lions didn't make the necessary adjustments after halftime to control Miller on the ground and force him to throw - until it was too late. 

The generally skittish execution speaks to PSU's mental readiness. The emotional keel seemed mis-calibrated. Which is on the coach.

The Lions committed an egregious nine penalties for 85 yards. Now, they all might not have been deserved - at least one, perhaps two, were horrendous, and while we're at it, memo to the Ohio State right tackle, Mike Mauti would like his jersey back - but seven is too many also.

Not putting the pedal to the metal more often with the NASCAR offense obviously was a conscious decision by O'Brien. After seeing increasing success with NASCAR in recent weeks, PSU surprisingly scaled it back for some of this game.

The Lions set the wrong tone on their opening possession by taking 30 seconds between plays.

Why did O'Brien do that? Maybe he wanted to gauge the OSU defense for a few plays. Perhaps it was an attempt to eat more clock and keep Miller off the field more. But what really keeps the opponent off the field are first downs, and what wins games are points. And slowing it down did not accomplish those two things for PSU. That's on O'Brien, too.

Meanwhile, Ohio State was very successful when it ran a few plays in rapid-fire succession in the second half, catching the Lions off-guard and getting first downs and big plays from Miller.


The 4th-down decisions by O'Brien will get a lot of attention and criticism, but it says here O'Brien was spot-on with the two biggest calls, especially the fake punt. Just because a play doesn't work doesn't mean it wasn't the right call:
  1. Mid-2nd quarter, going for it on 4th-and-7 at the Ohio State 21 in a scoreless game, well, that's what Penn State does - that is who O'Brien is. A 38-yard FG attempt from K Sam Ficken is a toss-up, and in 2012 PSU routinely goes for it in such situations. The problem this time was another pre-snap mental mistake penalty - a false start by RT Mike Farrell - that backed it up to 4th-and-12, or a 43-yard FG attempt which probably had a 35-40 percent chance of success. Now, PSU was in a lose-lose situation. O'Brien opted to go for it, and the swing pass to Brandon Moseby-Felder (nice play, O'Brien should have called a few more like it) came up short by about three yards. Had it been 4th-and-7, it might have turned out differently. As it was, it gave the ball back to OSU on the 17, instead of possibly on the 33, which is where the Buckeyes would have gotten it on a missed FG. Of course, Ficken might have made the kick for a 3-0 lead. The bad field position for OSU then led to the blocked punt that put PSU ahead 7-0. (Interestingly, that was former PSU commitment Camren Williams who engaged someone else as Mike Hull dashed past to make the block.)
  2. The fake punt/pass attempt by P Alex Butterworth, on 4th-and-9 from the OSU 43 with PSU down 14-10 midway through the third quarter. Twitterverse seemed to think this was a reckless decision, but actually it was perfect in all ways - it definitely caught Ohio State by surprise, and it was well-executed - except Butterworth's fateful decision to throw the ball to the covered receiver, Derek Day. Just a few yards farther downfield, Hull was running alone. If Butterworth throws it to Hull ... if, if, if.
With PSU ahead 7-0 late second quarter, the game did a perfect pivot - a complete 180-degree reversal, never to return - on one single bad call by an official.

OSU was punting from its 27, on the possession directly after the blocked punt TD for the Lions, with about four minutes before intermission. PSU was poised to take command going into halftime.

But Brad Bars was flagged for holding the punt snapper.

Said the play-by-play announcer, Sean McDonough. "I think we have seen more glaring examples of holding on almost every snap." Color commentator Chris Spielman mocked the call and credited Bars with textbook execution.

The call set about a chain of events that led to Ohio State pretty much taking over - after the Buckeyes had done virtually nothing to that point - and Penn State couldn't reverse the momentum.

The call kept the PSU defense on the field for a third straight possession. Mentally and physically, the Lions couldn't sustain, and Miller finally broke a big play. A few plays later the Buckeyes scored to tie it at 7-7 just before the half:

Turning points don't get much more clear: With 1:45 to go in the half and OSU facing 2nd-and-9 at the PSU 39, Miller had 13 carries for 24 yards, and PSU led 7-0.

From that moment on, Miller had 12 carries for 110 yards, and OSU outscored PSU 35-16.

It was, in large part, up to O'Brien and the PSU coaches to get things turned back around. The Lions never quite made the adjustments necessary to do so.

On defense, at some point in the 3rd quarter, coordinator Ted Roof needed to get an extra man in the box to stifle Miller and OSU's rushing rampage. If Miller could beat PSU through the air, then so be it. His legs were killing the Lions.

By the time Roof did it, it was too late. OSU had a comfortable 28-16 lead mid-4th quarter and the pressure was off. So when Miller saw PSU jamming the line and took to the air - he only attempted seven passes in the second half  - he zipped a perfect strike to Jake Stoneburner for a 72-yard, game-clinching TD.

On offense, OSU was able to pressure PSU QB Matt McGloin more than any opponent this season, and the line/blocking scheme did not consistently adjust to Ohio State's blitzing. Also, OSU allowed only 68 yards combined on 22 carries to PSU tailbacks Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton.

The Buckeyes' standard four-man rush was effective, and the blitzing was punitive - it created the sack on the second play of the second half that led to the pick-6 that put PSU behind for good, 14-7.

The NASCAR offense operating at peak speed could have helped defuse the OSU pass rush, as it forces the defense into a reactive instead of proactive mode.

Instead, PSU opened the first half at a leisurely pace, and the second in low-gear NASCAR, not fast enough to stop OSU from perfectly executing a 2nd-down blitz before the 3rd-down pick-6.

Play-calling could have slowed, or mitigated, the OSU pass rush, too. Screens, swing passes, utilizing an extra blocker or two, and this blog's personal favorite play, the rollout and/or play-action rollout - all could have been mixed into the equation more often to help McGloin avert the pass rush.

The one thing O'Brien did that clearly might have altered momentum, and possibly the outcome - the fake punt/pass attempt - failed due to Butterworth throwing to the wrong guy. Great call, unfortunate result. And the Lions' defense buckled after that.

So, O'Brien, the spectacular new head coach for Penn State, absorbs his first defeat in which his preparation, gameplan and in-game adjustments, or lack thereof, contributed significantly to the loss.

But if O'Brien has demonstrated anything during his 10 months at Penn State, and he has demonstrated a lot, he is a very quick study.

So the next time PSU plays a big game - perhaps at Nebraska in two weeks, and/or in the finale vs. Wisconsin - expect O'Brien and his team to perform much better.

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  1. I disagree. He was outcoached, to be sure, but really it came down to the O-line. They pushed us around, and it took a midgame adjustment by Meyer (and a game-changing pick-six) to swing it toward OSU. It wasn't a bad day against a top-ten team, it was a learning experience for all involved.

  2. I think we agree more than we disagree, considering you say "he was outcoached, to be sure."