UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -
Following two-straight victories, the Nittany Lions will open their 20th Big
Ten season on Saturday at Illinois.
Head coach Bill O'Brien met with the media on Tuesday to preview the conference opener. Take a look through some of his key remarks.
Focus on Illinois
Coach O'Brien said on Tuesday the team's focus is solely on preparing for Saturday's Big Ten opener in Champaign. The Nittany Lions practiced on Monday afternoon in shells to kick off game week. O'Brien wants to see the team continue to step forward. Winning two-straight games sends the team into conference play with confidence, but Coach O'Brien stressed on Tuesday that there is a lot of work yet to be done.
"The biggest thing is that this is our first Big Ten game," O'Brien said. "Our players are very focused on the Big Ten schedule. I believe that our players are really focused this week on building on what they did well in the Temple game and improving in areas where we really need to improve as it relates to the Temple game. They're not concerned with anything other than playing a tough road game in Champaign against a good Illinois team."
Nittany Lions Getting Healthier
Penn State will head into the Big Ten season with relatively healthy roster. Sophomore running back Bill Belton practiced on Monday and is expected to play. The same is true for fellow running backs Derek Day (shoulder) and Curtis Dukes (thigh). Michael Zordich (bruised knee) is also expected to return to the practice field on Tuesday. Coach O'Brien labeled defensive end Sean Stanley (back) as probable for Saturday and defensive end Pete Massaro will likely not play this week.
In addition to the four running backs listed, Zach Zwinak turned in the best performance of his career on Saturday, tallying 94 yards. When asked what the running back rotation will look like at Illinois, Coach O'Brien had this to say:
"It's tough to use all five. I definitely see us using two or three," O'Brien said. "Depends how they practice during the week. So, again, I went into their meeting yesterday and told them, Hey, look, guys, we got five guys that are good players, tough guys, love coaching them, so let's go out and practice well and decide then we'll as a coaching staff who's going to play on Saturday."
Penn State has out-scored its opponents 55-9 during the first half this season. Coach O'Brien noted the importance of quick starts in games, but also ensuring the team comes out of the locker room following halftime with the same intensity level.
"I know that we stress trying to get off to a fast start," O'Brien said. "We've done a decent job of that. On the flip side of that now, when we go in at halftime we got to come out and do a better job in the second half, especially getting off to another fast start. We are thinking about different ways to get ourselves kick started in the second half, because it's a four‑quarter game. It's great to start the game well, but it's really how you finish the game. So we've got to do a better job in the second half."
Defensive Third Down Improvement
Penn State's defense has improved each week, just like the collective football team has. One of the big areas of improvement Coach O'Brien stressed on Tuesday is the defense's play on third down. During the first two weeks, Penn State's defense allowed its opponents to convert on 61 percent of their third downs. In the second two games, Penn State has allowed its opponents to convert on just 26 percent of their third down opportunities.
Big Ten Road Openers
The Nittany Lions will
open the 2012 Big Ten slate on the road in Memorial Stadium. This season's clash at Illinois marks the
12th time in 20 seasons that Penn State will open the Big Ten schedule with a
road game. The Nittany Lions will also
open the 2013 Big Ten season on the road at Indiana.
Adjusting as New Head Coach
One thing to keep in mind as the Nittany Lions enter week five of the 2012 campaign is that Coach O'Brien is just five weeks into his first season as a head coach. He talked in detail on Tuesday about how the learning process is going thus far in his transition from offensive coordinator to head coach.
"It's a huge difference," O'Brien said. "When you're an assistant coach, an offensive coordinator, the offense goes out there, you either score, you punt, or you turn it over. Hopefully you don't punt or turn it over, but you come to the bench and make adjustments with your offense. As a head coach, you have to understand one thing is game management. How is the game being played? How is your defense playing? That's going to affect how you call plays on offense. What is going well on offense? You want to stick with that. What can you do that will put the defense in conflict based on what you're doing well offensively? You're thinking about the whole game more. As an assistant coach you don't call the timeout in the game. You don't think about the clock as much as you do as a head football coach. So game management, you know, all the different things that go into that. I'm involved with the special teams. As assistant coach you're not involved with special teams at all. So it's a big difference. Just like everybody else in our football program, I'm trying to improve every week and trying to get better."
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