Just like Penn Staters across the country, I fell in love with Bill O'Brien last season. He didn't mind playing offense on fourth down in situations where most coaches would call for a punt. He opened up Penn State's offense to a whole new world of aggressive play-calling and tight end utility.
This season, I knew Penn State would be breaking in a new quarterback and had depth problems because of the NCAA sanctions. Those two obstacles would make it tough for the Lions to be successful in the Big Ten this season. However, with O'Brien still behind the wheel, I was optimistic that the tables would tilt in Penn State's favor during close games.
Well, Penn State won its opening game against Syracuse 23-17 on Saturday, but it wasn't because of superior coaching decisions. Christian Hackenberg made some big plays, Allen Robinson played a second half for the ages, and the defense held the Orange in check to overcome some key turnovers. Meanwhile, O'Brien seemed to be busy trying to mess things up. Don't get me wrong; I still think he's a great coach, but here's how he put Penn State's chances in jeopardy on Saturday:
The End of the First Half
With Penn State leading 6-3 and just under a minute remaining in the first half, Syracuse appeared ready to just run the clock out, but O'Brien tempted fate with some ill-advised time outs.
1-10 SU 25 Jerome Smith rush up middle for 2 yards to the SU27 (Jones, DaQuan).
2-8 SU 27 Timeout Penn State, clock 00:49.
2-8 SU 27 Jerome Smith rush up middle for 4 yards to the SU31 (Jones, DaQuan).
3-4 SU 31 Timeout Penn State, clock 00:45.
3-4 SU 31 D. Mcfarlane rush right for loss of 1 yard to the SU30 (Jones, DaQuan).
End of half, clock 00:00.
I don't know if O'Brien thought Penn State could get the ball back with enough time to mount another scoring drive, or if he just wanted to see Syracuse punt the ball one more time (an earlier attempt resulted in a botched snap). Either way, the strategy didn't work. Syracuse didn't even have to attempt a punt, and if coach Scott Shafer was feeling better about his own quarterback situation, the Orange may have even been able to mount a drive of their own thanks to the extra time outs.
Early in the Fourth Quarter
When Hackenburg connected with wide receiver Eugene Lewis on a 54-yard touchdown pass with under 12 minutes to play in the game, it sure seemed like the lights were about to turn off on the Orange. However, O'Brien decided to kick the extra point in what seemed like an obvious go-for-two situation. Penn State was now up by 13 instead of either 12 or 14, and that ended up being a problem for the Lions down the stretch.
A Hackenberg interception opened up the door for the Orange to run in a touchdown later in the final period, and it would have been a lot easier to watch the end of the game if the Lions were up by seven instead of six. Fortunately, a Trevor Williams interception on Syracuse's final drive made the final margin a moot point.
Late in the Fourth Quarter
Of course, Syracuse wouldn't even have had a final drive worth mentioning if Penn State's offense had been able to run out the clock. Check out Penn State's final possession before the Williams pick:
1-10 PSU 21 Zwinak, Zach rush up middle for no gain to the PSU21 (Cameron Lynch;Robert Welsh).
2-10 PSU 21 Zwinak, Zach rush up middle for 3 yards to the PSU24 (Robert Welsh).
3-7 PSU 24 Timeout Syracuse, clock 02:19.
3-7 PSU 24 Zwinak, Zach rush right for no gain to the PSU24 (Cameron Lynch).
Sure, the Orange were out of timeouts because of O'Brien's conservative approach, but with over two minutes left on the clock when Syracuse took over, they didn't need any to mount a game-winning drive. The clock stoppages forced by first downs would have given Syracuse enough time to score a touchdown. Fortunately, Orange quarterback Drew Allen opted to push the envelope, and the Penn State defense took advantage.
I know most coaches would be excused for running the ball three times in a row late in the game with a freshman quarterback at the helm. Hackenberg, after all, did almost throw the game away with a pick in the fourth quarter. However, I hold O'Brien to a higher standard, because Penn State needs a coach who isn't afraid to take chances if it wants to stand a chance against the better team in the Big Ten. O'Brien is that coach. I'd just like to see him start acting like it this week.