STATE COLLEGE —
Bill O’Brien’s spot on the Penn State sideline can be directly linked to the coach on the other side of the field.
Central Florida coach George O’Leary was one of the first to spot O’Brien’s potential as a coach almost 20 years ago. O’Leary hired O’Brien as a graduate assistant coach at Georgia Tech in 1995, then promoted him to running backs coach in 1998. O’Brien was bumped up to offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach in 2001, just the start of a successful career that brought him to Happy Valley before last season.
O’Brien will try and beat his mentor when the Nittany Lions (2-0) play UCF (2-0) today.
O’Brien called O’Leary a few times after he was hired for tips on everything from setting up a practice schedule to travel routines. For all of O’Brien’s stops, including the New England Patriots, he appreciates the crash course in football X’s and O’s he learned at Georgia Tech.
“Probably the most I learned from and talked to Coach O’Leary was when I worked for him,” O’Brien said. “Coaches are busy, and everybody has busy lives, but those eight seasons I worked for him is where I really learned a lot.”
Central Florida (1-1) vs. Penn State (2-0)
When: 6 this evening.
Where: Beaver Stadium.
TV: Big Ten Network.
Radio: STAR 100.9 FM, WTIV 990 AM, WNTJ 1490 AM, WAYC 1600 AM
O’Brien was set to follow O’Leary to Notre Dame in 2001 and work as offensive coordinator. But O’Leary’s resume fraud cost him the job and O’Brien remained at Georgia Tech. He went to Maryland and Duke before leaving for the NFL in 2007.
“All those coaches that I’ve had that have moved on to bigger jobs, they all had the one thing that you need, and that’s great work ethic,” O’Leary said. “There were no (specific) hours in the day. You couldn’t give them enough information to make them better coaches.
“He learned, and he continued to get better. He’s taken a tough situation up at Penn State and really done a great job.”
Penn State assistant head coach/wide receivers coach Stan Hixon (1995-99) and offensive line coach Mac McWhorter (2000-01) also coached with O’Leary and O’Brien at Georgia Tech.
With a win against the Knights, Penn State would have a five-game winning streak dating to last season. With Kent State and Indiana ahead, the Nittany Lions could be undefeated for an Oct. 12 game against No. 11 Michigan.
Here are five things to watch when UCF visits Happy Valley:
Who gets the ball: Will this be the week one running back truly emerges as the go-to carrier for the Nittany Lions? Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch each rushed for 108 yards in last week’s win against Eastern Michigan. Zach Zwinak had two TDs. Belton and Lynch gave Penn State two 100-yard rushers in a game for the first time since Evan Royster and Silas Redd did it in 2010. The Nittany Lions had two 100-yard rushers for the 32nd time in school history. O’Brien said he liked the back-by-committee approach, mostly because it’s been working.
Tough D: Led by QB Christian Hackenberg, Penn State’s offense has been rolling. But the defense has been stout, too, ranking 10th in the NCAA with 221.5 total yards allowed per game. The Nittany Lions also rank eighth in the NCAA and second in the Big Ten with 66.0 rushing yards allowed. It should be an interesting matchup against a UCF rushing offense that has averaged 161 yards.
Perfect start: The Knights are looking to move to 3-0 for the first time since 1988. UCF has never started 3-0 as an FBS program. But the Knights have lost each of its last two games in Happy Valley.
Third-down woes: Penn State is the worst team in the FBS at converting third downs. Penn State’s 2-for-26 third-down conversion rate (.077) ranks last among 123 teams. “It will get better,” O’Brien said. “I can’t guarantee it. I’m not into guarantees, but we’re working on it.”
Irish spring: When the two teams play next season, the game will be held in Ireland. Irish media visited Beaver Stadium this week and Croke Park Stadium Director Peter McKenna brought the Dan Rooney Trophy, which goes to the 2014 winner. This will be the first time UCF and Penn State have played outside the United States. Rooney, the Pittsburgh Steelers chairman, was also a U.S. Ambassador to Ireland.