Column: O’Brien Struggling in Second Year of Sanctions

Story posted October 11, 2013 in Sports, CommRadio by Mike Wargon

In his first season at Penn State, Bill O’Brien took a team that had just been given the worst sanctions in NCAA history, and led them to an 8-4 record. Although some people thought the 2012 team wouldn’t do well, it proved to be a talented bunch.

The Penn State faithful immediately attributed the Nittany Lions success to O’Brien rather than the skill of the team. The 2012 team was built for success before O’Brien was named head coach and would have succeeded with most coaches. Did Bill O’Brien help right the ship, mold Matt McGloin into a pro prospect, and lead Penn State to success? Of course he did, but he was not the sole purpose for their success.

Now in his second season in charge, O’Brien and his Lions are in trouble. After losing a tight contest to UCF at home earlier in the season, they were embarrassed last weekend by Indiana; a team they had never lost to before. As far as I’m concerned the blame for last week’s loss, and their struggles this season, fall on the shoulders of Bill O’Brien.

This season O’Brien was charged with the task of managing true freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg. Hackenberg has put up impressive numbers thus far, but O’Brien has not helped him win games. Last week at Indiana, Christian Hackenberg threw the ball 55 times. A true freshman quarterback playing in his first Big Ten game threw the ball 55 times. To top all this off, it was raining for a portion of the game.

Penn State has a three-headed monster at the running back position, with Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton, and Akeel Lynch. The running backs weren’t spectacular early, but Zwinak averaged 4.2 yards per carry. Whether the running game is working or not, O’Brien needs to continue to run the ball to keep pressure off his young quarterback. Running the ball more will also open up more passing lanes, and can only make Christian Hackenberg a better quarterback.

Running the ball more not only helps the offense, but also helps the defense. In their two losses this season, Penn State’s secondary has been torn apart by spread offenses.

In the future, Penn State needs long drives to keep the opposing team’s offense off the field and give their defense a chance to catch their breath. With a weaker Penn State defense, than we’ve seen in the past, the Nittany Lion’s offense needs to help them out by staying on the field for as long as possible.

By no means am I saying that Bill O’Brien is a bad coach. I think he’s a very good coach and that he has a great football mind. However, he needs to realize that he’s not working with Matt McGloin or Tom Brady. He’s working with a kid, albeit very talented, that was playing high school football less than a year ago. He’s never seen defenses like the ones he will see in the Big Ten.

There is going to be a rough stretch for Christian Hackenberg and Bill O’Brien needs to be there to manage the game for him. O’Brien needs to tailor his game plan not to Christian Hackenberg’s physical skills, which are immense, but to his ability to read a defense.

Even if O’Brien does this, Hackenberg will still struggle at times in the Big Ten. If Christian Hackenberg develops into the prospect he was believed to be, and O’Brien learns how to properly use all the pieces on his team, the future remains bright for Penn State.

Mike Wargon is a junior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him email