The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Local Sports

October 2, 2013

O'Brien, Penn State head into Big 10 schedule

STATE COLLEGE — Penn State coach Bill O’Brien sure enjoys it when the seasons change.

Not just summer to fall, but nonconference to Big Ten.  

“When the Big Ten season rolls around, fall is beginning, it’s a little cooler out,” O’Brien said, “and the guys are very aware that is a very important time of the year. It starts with Indiana. I don’t know if there’s extra excitement, but there’s definitely a level of energy and alertness you start to see this time of year.”

Penn State (3-1) heads to Indiana (2-2) trying for one more win to build a nice cushion before Michigan rolls in next week in front of a sold-out Beaver Stadium.

The Big Ten has a stout first weekend ahead. Ohio State, Northwestern and Michigan are all undefeated and all eyes will be in Evanston, Ill., for the early-season conference game of the season.

There might not be much suspense at Indiana. The Nittany Lions are 16-0 vs. Indiana and Penn State won last year, 45-22.

The Nittany Lions were off last week – but still may have tallied their biggest win of the season. The NCAA restored some of the scholarships taken from the school as part of the punishment over the Jerry Sandusky scandal, phasing them until the school reaches normal totals in 2016-17.

O’Brien, who has steadied the program in the wake of the scandal, had an extra selling point on the recruiting trail.

“I talked to a few of them, we’re only allowed one phone call a week right now,” he said. “I think it’s positive, and it’s positive news for Penn State. Our guys feel good about it, but we’re focused on Indiana. Our guys are pleased with the news, but we’re focused on the Indiana game.”

Penn State has had a nice start to the season, though no one will confuse Syracuse, Eastern Michigan and Kent State with any of the Big Ten teams out of Michigan and Ohio.

O’Brien will put the class of the Big Ten up against just about any other conference in the nation.

“The Southeastern Conference is a fantastic league, nobody is going to debate that and probably the best in the country right now,” he said. “But I think we have some really good players and some really good coaches in this league.”

The Big Ten will get to showcase that ahead and these are five things to watch in the first full weekend of conference play:

Game of the week: This is the game No. 16 Northwestern (4-0) has been waiting for all season, if not years. A team that came in with high expectations is right where it hoped to be heading into the showdown against the No. 4 Buckeyes (5-0). But Ohio State is riding a nation’s best 17-game winning streak and plans to spoil Northwestern’s homecoming party. The Buckeyes haven’t been to Evanston since 2008 and Northwestern is 9-1 at home since 2012.

“The change in the climate here, and the way that our fans have not only supported us here, but the bowl experiences we’ve had are just amazing,” Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We’re very thankful to be Chicago’s Big Ten team.”

Arrested development: Purdue coach Darrell Hazell ran into a double whammy in his first season. First, the Boilermakers (1-4, 0-1) were crushed 55-24 by Northern Illinois, of all teams. Then, after a week off, receivers B.J. Knauf and Jordan Woods were arrested for theft. Knauf is a starting receiver who has nine receptions for 95 yards and rushed 11 times for 92 yards and one score this season. Woods is a redshirt freshman who has not caught a pass.

Hazell said he’ll announce a punishment this week. “They made a bad decision, both of them,” he said. “We’ll make the necessary disciplinary action when we find out all the information.” 

Michigan motoring: The only other conference matchup with a ranked team features No. 19 Michigan (4-0) vs. Minnesota (4-1, 0-1) in the 100th meeting for the Little Brown Jug. But the Wolverines have more on their mind than a piece of pottery. After all, the jug has pretty much had a permanent home in Michigan – the Wolverines have won the last five games in the series, 37 of 40 and haven’t lost since 2005.

The Wolverines are a three-touchdown favorite and can move a step closer toward their goal of their first Big Ten title since 2004 with a win.

Illini on the rebound: Illinois (3-1) is an early surprise and has scored a school-record 161 points over their first four games, eclipsing the mark of 158 points in the first four games of 1914.

But this week, the schedule turns tough, and a game at Nebraska (3-1) could go a long way toward determining if the fast start is a mirage or the build toward something bigger.

Illinois went 0-8 in conference games last season and has lost 14 straight Big Ten games. And Illinois hasn’t won a Big Ten game since Oct. 8, 2011 at Indiana.

The O in Hoosiers: No wonder there are two O’s in Hoosiers. Indiana’s offense is racking up enough yards for two teams. The Hoosiers average 44.5 points and 547.2 yards per game.

But all the gaudy numbers haven’t helped Indiana (2-2) inch over .500. However, they have Penn State’s attention regardless.

“Handling the tempo and being able to tackle in space and not give up a ton of explosive plays is a big part of the gameplan,” O’Brien said.

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