The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

College

October 7, 2012

Penn State trains focus on football, not courts

STATE COLLEGE — Another milestone arrives for Penn State during the upcoming open week, but players have no plans to keep tabs of this event.

Ex-assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, whose arrest last year sparked the scandal that plunged the program into turmoil, is scheduled to be sentenced Tuesday. He’ll likely spend the rest of his life in prison following his conviction in June of 45 criminal counts including child sex abuse.

Penn State players who had nothing to do with the scandal, but bore the brunt of the NCAA’s wrath, have long moved on. They’re focused on football and what’s turning into a promising season – not the courtroom.

“No one pays attention to that,” linebacker and senior leader Michael Mauti said Saturday with an icy stare after being asked if he would pay attention to Tuesday’s proceedings. “It has nothing to do with us.”

Not directly anyway. The NCAA punished the program with unprecedented penalties of a four-year bowl ban and steep scholarship declines for the school’s handling of the scandal. Players were allowed by the NCAA to transfer right away, creating an offseason scrum in what amounted to college football’s version of free agency.

In the end, more than 90 percent of the players stayed – and they’re on four-game winning streak following the 39-28 victory Saturday over previously-unbeaten Northwestern. Next up is a trip to Iowa on Oct. 20

“You know what, I didn’t even realize that it was coming up. I really didn’t,” defensive end Pete Massaro said. “That’s in the past. This program is moving forward.”

And with a dramatically different offensive philosophy, too, under first-year coach Bill O’Brien, the former offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots.

The Nittany Lions (4-2, 2-0 Big Ten) ran 99 offensive plays against Northwestern – equaling the school record set in a 38-6 victory at West Virginia in 1966, former coach Joe Paterno’s first season. Penn State outgained Northwestern 30-17 in first downs.

After a one-week visit at No. 24, the Wildcats dropped out of the latest Top 25 poll. Penn State received one vote in the poll – its first poll vote of the season.

Perhaps the starkest difference under O’Brien is play-calling. It’s entertaining and bold, as evident by the 5 of 6 conversions on fourth downs including Allen Robinson’s 6-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter with the Nittany Lions down 11.

But O’Brien wasn’t done. Instead of going for the extra point to get Penn State within four, he decided to go for two. Michael Zordich rumbled up the middle into the end zone to get within 28-25.

Sparked by the fourth-down call, the Nittany Lions steamrolled over Northwestern from there in a 22-0 fourth quarter. For the year, Penn State leads the nation in fourth-down conversions (13) and attempts (20).

“We love it. It is an attitude kind of play,” Zordich said about the fourth-down gambles. “We want touchdowns. That is what this offense is about ... We love it because it gets your mind right.”

The defense loved it, too.  Mauti’s outside linebacker running mate, senior Gerald Hodges, gave his best performance of the year helping to shut down the Wildcats’ potent attack to a season-low in total yards (247) a week after the Wildcats compiled a school-704 against Indiana.

The win was a huge confidence boost going into the bye week. The Nittany Lions will go through light workouts Monday-Wednesday, at least, and O’Brien will decide from there whether he’ll run his team through any more drills.

There’s still a lot upon which to improve, especially on special teams. A muffed punt by Jesse Della Valle at the Penn State 17 set up Northwestern’s first score of the afternoon. Venric Mark’s 75-yard punt return for a touchdown gave the Wildcats its short-lived 11-point lead late in the third quarter.

But the Nittany Lions rallied from adversity, like they have all season.

“Those things that happened over the summer and in the past are a lot bigger than football,” O’Brien said. “These kids are just having fun playing football right now and going to school.”

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