Penn State may be 6-5 on the season with a finale visit to always-tough Wisconsin looming this weekend.
But Nittany Lion coach Bill O'Brien still has plenty for which to be thankful.
FightOnState.com's Mark Brennan and Penn State sports historian Lou Prato break down the coach's final weekly press conference of 2013 above.
Transcript provided by Penn State Athletic Communication.
COACH O'BRIEN: We're here working through Thanksgiving week. Had a walk through type practice yesterday, and now back to work today and then we'll practice a similar schedule today and tomorrow, and then Thursday we'll practice in the morning and then celebrate Thanksgiving together over at Pollock. Jim Hopey and his crew do a great job of cooking us a fantastic meal over there. Then we'll head to Wisconsin on Friday for a big, obviously, a challenging football game for us, and we're looking forward to it. Injury wise, pretty much it is what it is. Von Walker should be able to go this week. He had a concussion a couple weeks ago. Should be fine now. (Bill) Belton looks like he's going to be good to go. We'll see that throughout the week. (Zach) Zwinak, he was banged around pretty good (35 carries vs. Nebraska). Obviously, a very physical game on Saturday. He looks to be okay for the game and the rest of these guys, we've got a bunch of bumps and bruises, but they should be good for the game. Adrian Amos has a foot sprain. Have to see how that is, but he seems to be moving around better and better every day. So that's pretty much an update on injuries.
Q. Christian (Hackenberg) said one of his main goals this season has been to be a game manager, and I was wondering how do you think he's done in that regard?
COACH O'BRIEN: I'll tell you what, I think he's done a good job. I think that we could all do a better job in certain areas, and I'm sure he has some plays he wish he could have back, but we don't get those plays back. I think, overall, when you look at being 18 years old and coming in here and playing pretty much every snap of every game, I think he's gotten better and better at doing that. What's that mean? You've got to define what a game manager is. A game manager is somebody that understands when to run the ball. That does a good job of using the clock at the end of the half, using the clock at the end of a game, understands coverage reads and when to throw it, when to check to a run, things like that. He overall has gotten better and better at that throughout the year. I think as time goes on, he'll be even better at it.
Q. Could you evaluate Brandon Bell's performance against Nebraska? He looked pretty active out there. I was wondering what your thoughts were on the challenge of facing the Wisconsin run game this week and those running backs, (James) White and (Melvin) Gordon.
COACH O'BRIEN: Brandon played a really good football game. He had been playing well earlier on special teams. So we decided to get him more run at linebacker. He really played well. He had a really good tackle near the goal line on the quarterback. He almost, at the end of the game when they fumbled the shotgun snap, he almost recovered that. He instinctively took off and went after it and almost got that one, which would have been a huge play, obviously. And there were many plays throughout the game. He does a good job of understanding blocking schemes at a young age. He's an instinctive player and does a good job. This is a big challenge. They run the football very well. They're very well coached. They're physical, they're big. Gary Andersen has done a good job coming in there and putting his style of play and putting his mark on that program right away. Big challenge. These are two good running backs; guys that have each gained a lot of yards. Our guys will be there in Wisconsin on Saturday. That's what I will tell you.
Q. Mike Hull was just talking about how he feels more comfortable in a leadership role at this point of the season. How much have you seen that from him and the junior class as a whole developing in that regard and looking to lead the team going forward?
COACH O'BRIEN: Yeah, I think we have some good guys in that class. You know, Hull, and on offense you have (Miles) Dieffenbach and some other guys. Obviously, Allen Robinson. You have some really good leaders in that class. He's one of them. He's a very tough guy. He plays through pain. He hates missing practice. He's a good player as he's become healthier he's played better and better. Yeah, he's a definite leader.
Q. The physical nature of the game, how physically demanding has this season been? How will that translate to Saturday at Wisconsin?
COACH O'BRIEN: Yeah, it's definitely been physical, you're right. I think what we try to do is give them 48 hours rest. Tried not to hit them yesterday. We usually hit on Mondays, and we didn't yesterday. I believe that will help. I think Thanksgiving week, not having classes, being able to sleep in a little bit, come over, get some treatments in the training room and then come back after practice and get another treatment, I think that will help. And there's only one game left, so you should our guys will be ready to go out there and lay it on the line, I know that.
Q. How about the biggest difference with C.J. Olaniyan from last year to this year?
COACH O'BRIEN: Yeah, C.J.'s made a lot of improvement. He's made a lot of improvement in the weight room. He really worked hard in the off season in the weight room. He got in better condition. He's doing better in school. It all kind of goes together. He's "grown up," and he's played some good football for us. He had a strip sack on Saturday night. He caused a fumble against Minnesota. He's a long guy. He's got long arms and he's an instinctive player and a tough kid. He'll continue to get better.
Q. I know your focus is on the Wisconsin game. But given the possibility that this is the last time we'll be speaking to you in this forum for awhile, I was wondering if you could tell us how the program is positioned going forward from now?
COACH O'BRIEN: Yeah, like you said, we're very focused on Wisconsin. We really are. But the reason we're focused on Wisconsin has a little bit to do with the future. Number one, we're focused on Wisconsin because we want to, again, have another chance to send these seniors out on a winning note. That is really important. But it's also a chance for our younger players who are coming back next year, younger and veteran players who are coming back next year, to go out there against a very good football team and play well. So it's an important game for that. So we're focused there. I feel really good about where the program's at. I think that recruiting has gone well. I think if you look at the '13 class that we brought in here recruiting wise, from what I can see right off the bat, I don't think there are any "busts." I think there are role players and guys that will continue to have roles for us. I think there are some really good players that nobody's even seen yet that are red shirting. And then obviously the guys that played this year for us, the Brandon Bells, the Hackenbergs, the (Adam) Brenemans and those guys. We feel good about the future. We feel good about where we're headed recruiting wise. Every single home game here we've had a lot of great prospects here. Can't really get into the details of that because that's an NCAA violation, but we feel good about the '14 class, and we feel good about the '15 class, because you're always trying to stay one step ahead. So we're recruiting hard with the 2015 class. We've got a bunch of guys on this football team that gained a lot of experience this year which I think will really help them. Some guys were playing college football for the first time like Geno Lewis who red shirted last year and was playing in a college football game for the first time. Jordan Lucas didn't play a lot for us his first year. Now he comes in and he's one of our better players. We have a lot of veteran players that have played a lot of football for us, that are coming back next year that we feel really, really good about. I'm not going to get into predictions or anything like that. That's not what I'm saying. But I think our program, with the two year sanctions that we've been under and things like that with the limited amount of guys we could offer and guy that's left the program, I think our program stands on pretty solid ground right now.
Q. Do you know Gary Andersen either personally or by reputation? What is your sense of what kind of a stamp he's put on Wisconsin?
COACH O'BRIEN: Yeah, I've met him at the Big Ten coaches' meetings, so I guess two or three times. A really good guy. You can tell he's a football guy. He's an easy guy to talk to. You can tell he believes in tough, hard nosed football on both sides of the ball and on special teams. That's Wisconsin. That's what they're all about. To come in there in his first year and to put that type of stamp right away on the program is really good. Obviously, he's got a good staff and a bunch of kids there that have bought into his philosophy and got a lot of respect for Gary and what he's doing there.
Q. Zach Zwinak has been really consistent over the last three games. Have you been impressed with the season he's had not only and how productive he's been lately, but how he's overcome some of the fumbling issues and hitting in those games early in the season?
COACH O'BRIEN: Zach's had a good year. He's a mentally tough kid. Now remember now back in the spring he broke his wrist in the spring game and he rehabbed all summer. So he really couldn't lift weights, especially upper body. Couldn't bench press, couldn't do the things some of the movement exercises that Fitzy (Craig Fitzgerald) does, he couldn't even do those. So he came in and he started off a little bit slow, but he's had a good year for us. He's got a chance to gain 1,000 yards again. Tough kid, tough runner, mentally tough kid, really enjoy coaching him. I think he's he and I have had a lot of talks about ball security and we just try not to get all over him about it every single second of the day. We just say, “look, it's important for you to hold the ball the proper way” and all these things. And remind him of those things, and he's taken it to heart, and knock on wood, he's done a good job in the last three games and he needs to do a good job on Saturday.
Q. You were just talking about the program. Regardless of your record after this weekend at 7 5 or 6 6, in what ways do you think this season has been a success?
COACH O'BRIEN: Well, I think that obviously you are what your record says you are. So we're a 6 5 team, barely above .500 with a chance to be 7 5 or 6 6. So, certainly the season has had its ups and downs. It hasn't been a consistent season. But, I do think there's been a lot of positives. I think the fact that we've been able to play a freshman quarterback in every game and he's stayed healthy, and I believe he's gotten better and better, I think that is a real positive. I believe that for the most part we've run the ball pretty well on offense. I think that's a positive. We've been able to get our younger players a lot of work in practice with the Monday night developmental scrimmages. That's a positive. I believe our defense has improved every single week. I think the last three weeks, our defense has played well and a lot of younger players or guys that have years left here at Penn State have played a lot of football for us on defense. We've got to make improvement on special teams. Everybody who watches Penn State knows that special teams has been a struggle at times, and other times it's been okay. But it's been too inconsistent, and that is a big area, especially in the world that we live in right now, that's where you have to do a better job of special teams. So we'll look to do that. But I think success or not a success, I'm not getting into that. But I think that there's been a lot of positives from the season so far.
Q. Week to week, being a head coach and being the (offensive) coordinator, you can kind of set the tone and personality of your team and everything. Do you kind of make a point to find different motivational things week to week? It seemed like talking to the players after the Purdue game, everybody was talking about the comments about Iowa and Wisconsin and whatever on the line. There always seems to be a theme for that. Is there something every week that you try to or your staff or was that just an organic thing the players do to try to motivate themselves week to week on something different?
COACH O'BRIEN: There are certain things we do every single week that don't change. For instance, we talk to our team. In about an hour, we'll talk to our team about the keys to the game on Saturday against Wisconsin: special teams, the punt team, the punt return team, the kickoff team, the kickoff return team, and then offense and defense. There are two or three keys to each area there to each game. That never changes. Then we have film to back up those keys. “Okay, here are the keys and here's the shot of it on film. If you do these things, we have a chance to win. If we don't, we're probably not going to win the game.” So we do that every single week. Certainly from a week to week basis, there are always different things that may come up within your team or outside of your team maybe on the other team or things like that that you may use to talk to your team about. But, again, it comes down to what the keys to the game are, and being focused on those and making sure everybody understands their role in the game plan.
Q. This being Thanksgiving week, what are some of the good things and some of the challenging things keeping the kids occupied as the week goes on without the other students there and no classes?
COACH O'BRIEN: Well, I think that we have a really focused group. We had a really good meeting yesterday. We had a good walkthrough, had about a 50 play walkthrough. Walked through some special teams, and I felt like our guys were really focused. I think it's good. It's football. These guys are football players. It's Thanksgiving week, there is no class. I think it allows them to just really focus on Wisconsin and what they need to do to help us beat Wisconsin. So I think it's good. Last night we took them to the movies. That was good. They saw some movie called "Thor," or something like that. I don't know what that movie is, but it sounds like it was a good movie. Then we'll do some other things throughout the week. But it sounds like they're pretty focused to me.
Q. Following up on the question about Thanksgiving week, outside of being with us, what are you thankful for this week?
COACH O'BRIEN: Oh, where can I go with that one (laughs)? I'm thankful for my family. I'm thankful for this football team, these players. I really am. I can't tell you enough how much I enjoy coaching these guys. I wish that some of these games had gone our way, but they didn't. It is what it is. I'm very thankful to come in here every day and coach these guys. I really am. I'm thankful for that. I've made some good friends here at Penn State and State College, I'm thankful for that. But, mostly I'm thankful for my family and the guys that I coach.
Q. I've been asking a few of the players about why they might not choose to wear sleeves under their jerseys when it's really cold outside. They say they don't want to look weak, like a power type of thing. Do you as a staff just tell them do whatever feels comfortable? Do you guys even look into that?
COACH O'BRIEN: We don't. No, if they choose to go sleeveless or they choose to wear sleeves like some of the best players I've ever seen were bundled up quite a bit. I don't know if you saw the Patriot game the other night, but it was freezing cold. Tom Brady was bundled up there with the deal on and the sleeve. But, I thought he played pretty well in the game. So, no, I don't get into that with our players. Whatever is comfortable. As long as it's issued from Spider's (equipment) room, that's all I care about.
Q. At Brown, did you wear sleeves when it was cold?
COACH O'BRIEN: What do you think? (laughter)
Q. I'd say no.
COACH O'BRIEN: Well, you'll have to go research that. Our season was over in the middle of November, remember? I think it was Dartmouth or Columbia that was the last game of the season.
Q. You said last week or couple weeks ago that you may look at some personnel on the kickoff coverage squad, and then I think you said you weren't going to change it. Can you outline that or some other guys that you may begin to look at?
COACH O'BRIEN: Yeah, what we did is we went back. I did say that. I just wanted to go back and look and see if we could make some improvements maybe by looking at the personnel there. But, I think what happens is right now you've got to make a decision on whether to put a starter on that team or go with a back up player and try to coach them better and put them in better spots to make those plays. So, that's what we're doing. We're going to stick with what we're doing there personnel wise, we won't make many changes there; maybe one or two changes. We'll see how it goes today. We work that today and Thursday. We'll see how it goes. I don't see any major changes personnel wise on those special teams.
Q. Also, without giving away any huge secrets, going into November when some teams would have bowls, they might look at some personnel re-evaluation or moving guys around. What would be some of your off season priorities relative to things like that?
COACH O'BRIEN: Right away, when the Wisconsin game is over, we'll meet as a staff on Sunday and head out on the road recruiting. So what I think is important is that certain decisions you have to make right after the season, depending on what those decisions are. But other decisions, kind of like the ones you're talking about, you can sit on a little bit and evaluate and think about, and not rush into those decisions whether it's moving a guy's position or, you know, a recruiting decision or whatever it might be. But there are certainly some of those decisions that need to be made, and we'll look at that pretty closely. But I'm certainly not ready to talk about it right now. But some of those things will definitely be made at some point in time before spring practice starts, that's for sure.
Q. Going off that, Ty Howle will play his last game Saturday. Can you evaluate the two guys behind him, Wendy Laurent, and Angelo Mangiro.
COACH O'BRIEN: Yeah, there will be a competition there. Angelo also plays guard, so he could play guard for us next year. Wendy's pretty much a center only, and I think Wendy's really improved. Angelo's improved. I think both these guys have gotten better. Now we haven't gotten them into games. We've stuck with those five (starters) with the addition of (Garry) Gilliam and things like that and (Eric) Shrive as an extra tackle. But those seven guys, basically we've played. I think that it will be a big off season for both Wendy and Angelo. It will be a big off season to get stronger, get more knowledgeable about the offense, have a good spring practice. We think that both those guys can be good players for us.
Q. You mentioned that Patriots game the other night. You've coached a lot of games in Foxboro in January and December. When it's cold like that as it was last Saturday maybe this Saturday, does it affect the game planning at all? Have you ever had games where maybe it didn't affect your preparation, but once the game started you had to make adjustments on the fly due to the weather?
COACH O'BRIEN: Yeah, the weather, you always have to take the weather into account especially this time of the year. If it starts snowing like it did the other night here, it was snowing pretty good. It was a squall, but it was snowing and there were visibility issues. You've got to be careful about throwing the ball outside of the numbers. You want to kind of throw the ball inside the numbers and different types of throws are important in snow squalls. When it's really cold, you've got to do a good job of making sure that the footballs that you're using are staying relatively warm and things like that, because those things can be like rocks. Then, when you add the wind in it's important that you have your quarterback understand how important it is to throw a spiral or how it affects the kicking game, the punting game….whether to go for it or whether to punt or a field goal, whether to kick the field goal or go for it. So that's kind of the decision at the end of the game there that we made against Nebraska. We decided to punt to try to pin them back to see if we could hold them and make them punt, which I thought would be into the wind. The wind was kind of swirling and giving us good field position to drive the ball to try to win the game. That was the decision there. Then we got the pass interference call there and they got out of jail there. So, yeah, the weather has a big affect on your game strategy decisions, no doubt about it.
Q. C.J. Olaniyan earlier today said that the birth of his daughter in April has been a big motivating factor for him. I'm just curious if you can see that urgency when you guys came back in camp this summer? Could you see that urgency there from him that he wanted to improve based on having that daughter?
COACH O'BRIEN: I think that's probably more of a question for him. I think that certainly being a father, obviously the responsibility of being a dad is a big deal, and I think that C.J. felt that. He and I had a couple of conversations about that, and I don't know if that was the exact time that he started coming on as a player, but he did. He's played a lot better for us this year than he did last year. So I'm sure that that has something to do with his daughter. But that's more something for him to answer than me.
Q. Vegas has pegged you guys as 23 point underdogs, which doesn't happen too often. I'm curious if that's something you're aware of, and if that's something maybe you use as bulletin board material to try to get guys motivated?
COACH O'BRIEN: No, I wasn't aware of that. You know, I'm aware that we're probably an underdog. We're 6 5, and they're 9 2, but I didn't know it was a 20 point underdog. No, that wouldn't be…now, if somebody from Wisconsin came out and said we're going to beat these guys by 24 points, then maybe we'd use that. But, certainly not Vegas.
Q. You talked about the Dirty Show (scout team) stuff earlier and the importance of it and how it's been embraced this year. Two guys we haven't seen but you've mentioned Andrew Nelson and Tanner Hartman, where do you see them fitting in going into the off season? What do you think they can improve upon?
COACH O'BRIEN: I think both these guys can factor in next year. I really believe that. I think they have to go do it. They have to go earn it, and they have to keep improving. But, there's another guy on that freshman offensive line class named Brendan Mahon who is really an improved player also. So I think all three of those guys. Then, you flip it over to the defensive side of the ball and you have three guys there that we feel good about that can factor in as a red shirt freshman: Garrett Sickels, Parker Cothren, and Curtis Cothran. All six of these guys have to go out there and do it. They have to earn it and do it, so don't peg them in there on the depth chart as number one, but they will certainly be given an opportunity to show their stuff in the spring, no doubt about it. And see what they do coming into training camp.
Q. You've had a lot of experience in the NFL. As the season is coming to an end, how do you help these players? What does your insight do to help benefit these players as they look to take their career to the next level?
COACH O'BRIEN: The first thing is, one of the things I do and I have knowledge of, not that I'm unique in this, I think a lot of coaches have this, but one of the things I learned in the NFL was I watch these guys as the season progressed and how they took care of their bodies. How the proper nutrition or maybe a massage or an extra treatment, that is one thing I advise them on. As far as the NFL, I always have an open door policy. We've had a lot of NFL scouts in here this year. I have an open door policy with the players, and every once in a while I say “look, towards the end of the year, if you're thinking about that, come see me. Sit down, let's talk about it. I'll tell you how the process works. If you're an underclassman, you can submit your name to the advisory board. If you're a guy whose eligibility is over, here's what I think. Here's how I see you. Here are the positions I see you being able to play. Here's probably how they view you right now.” I just try to talk to them. I always encourage them, if they think they can do it, to do it. I'd never be one to sit there and say if you can't do it, don't do it. Get on with your life. I don't think that's my position to do that. If they have their heart set on doing it, I'll tell them my honest opinion and encourage them to pursue it. So that's kind of how I do it.
Q. Wisconsin has been pretty stout on the defensive side, guys like (Chris) Borland and stuff in there. Can you break them down a little bit?
COACH O'BRIEN: They're very stout. I think there's been six games where they haven't given up a touchdown. But, they play a 3 4 look, which is tough. They have two good outside backers that set the edge really well, and then Borland, another guy on the inside. There are actually three guys that play inside linebacker with Borland being the guy that plays in there all the time. Borland is a really good player. He's about six feet tall, a 240 pound kid. He's stout, he's tough, he's smart. He's what you're looking for in a linebacker. A lot like our guy, Glenn Carson, just a tough, tough dude. Then they have, what I think is good about them too that is maybe overlooked is they have two really good safeties that support the run really well. They come up and tackle you. If a run breaks to the second level, they'll tackle you for a three yard gain instead of a 10 yard gain. So I think they do a lot of things well. Then, on third down they have a good pressure package, and we'll have to be ready for that. Then red zone, they change a little bit in the red zone, not too much. It's a big challenge for us. On the road, stout defense, but, again I say that every week. I think every week is a challenge. We got blown out in one game this year, we've had some really close games. We've had some really close games and we've got to figure out a way to come out on top in these close games. This is one that could potentially be a close football game.
Q. As the season has worn on, have you had to monitor Christian's pitch count at all in practice? Do guys like (D.J.) Crook, (Austin) Whipple, (Tyler) Ferguson, are those guys I don't want to say more valuable but do you lean on them more in practice as the season wears on?
COACH O'BRIEN: We do. We watch Christian, like you said, his pitch count. Mostly because he's a young guy. His body is still developing. His shoulder muscles, his tricep muscles, his biceps muscle, so you've got to be careful there with a guy that's 18, it's totally different than with a guy who is 34, 33. That's something we do monitor. He does get most of the reps in practice. We put Tyler Ferguson in there. He gets some reps in practice. And then D.J., Jackie Seymour, and (Austin Whipple) Whip, they run the Dirty Show. So they do that. Christian gets most of the reps, but that's one thing with the question about the players and the advice, that is one thing he and I talk about all the time is how to take care of your arm after practice, before practice, things like that. I think he's getting better and better with that.
Q. Coaching in a Super Bowl and coaching final games, do you prepare any differently knowing that it's the last game?
COACH O'BRIEN: Well, this isn't the Super Bowl, but, yeah. I don't know. Do I prepare differently? No, no.
Q. Do you coach differently in the game knowing there is no game after this?
COACH O'BRIEN: We're playing Wisconsin and this is a big game for Penn State. When you are getting prepared to play in a Super Bowl, you have usually two weeks, and so you are scouring every inch of film for years and years of the team that you're playing to try to find an edge because you have time. You know what I mean? It's a little bit different. It's the biggest. In that regard, it's the biggest game you're ever going to coach in whether it's a National Championship or a Super Bowl. So, not to say that we do anything less for Wisconsin, but we have less time. So we're just looking at their season to date and trying to figure out what they're doing. They've got a new coach, so there is no comparison between the two, you know what I mean?
Q. What about in the game, in the moment of coaching the game on the sidelines, do you coach it any different?
COACH O'BRIEN: No, you're coaching to win game, and you're intense about it, and you're trying to do the best job you can for the players. There is no difference than when the game is taking place than any game. There is no difference.
Q. When you go against your defense in practice, you run a 4 3, is there an added difficulty then going up against a 3 4? What are the difficulties of playing against a defense like that?
COACH O'BRIEN: We ran a 3 4 in New England for the years I was there, and it's very difficult especially when you have the type of personnel that Wisconsin has or that we had at the time in New England where you have a nose guard in Vince Wilfork or the guy from Wisconsin (Beau Allen) who is 330 pounds, like a big, stout dude. You have two, what they call four eyes. Four eyes means they line-up on the inside of the tackles that are 270 pound guys that are in a difficult position to block. How do you count them? Do you count them on the guard or do you count them on the tackle? Then you have the Sam and the Will (linebackers) that are lined up on your two tight ends that are two yard or two outside and they're there to set the edge and funnel everything inside. Then you have two inside backers that are really stout. So it's different than going against a 4 3, which is more of a four down look and three linebackers in the box. So different plays are better than against a 3 4 than they are against a 4 3 and vice versa. So you've got to retrain your players. So, to me, it's a difficult task. That's what we're doing right now is trying to train our players about these are the 3 4 plays that we need to run to move the ball against Wisconsin.