O'Brien, Penn State continue to roll on the road
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) Somehow, some way, there's no letdown for Penn State away from Happy Valley.
Three Big Ten games away from home, three blowouts.
But after scoring big wins at Illinois, Iowa and plunging Purdue on the road, the surprising Nittany Lions will encounter their biggest road test of the season Saturday with a trip to No. 18 Nebraska.
``We've been playing well on the road I'd say because it just eliminates the distractions for us,'' linebacker Michael Mauti said Tuesday. ``Because all we need are the guys on the bus and the guys in the locker room.
``We create our own energy.''
Distractions have been plentiful for Penn State (6-3, 4-1) over the past year. It's a year to the week that a child sex abuse scandal was ignited by the arrest of ex-assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, plunging one of the country's marquee football programs into turmoil.
But the resulting NCAA sanctions from the scandal haven't dampened the team's enthusiasm.
If anything, first-year coach Bill O'Brien has his team even more motivated to play every Saturday - even though both a conference title and bowl bid are out of reach. One of O'Brien's favorite sayings this year is ``Every game is a big game.''
``Some games we always wish that we could have back. We wish we could have coached better, played better, but when you have 12 opportunities, every single game is a big game,'' O'Brien said. ``This game is no bigger than any other game; it's just another big game, against a very, very good team.''
The Nittany Lions are still eligible to win the Leaders Division title, though those hopes took a serious hit with the 35-23 loss two weeks ago to No. 5 Ohio State.
But Penn State bounced back last week with a 34-9 win over Purdue. If anything, the off-the-field stress of the last year has helped train Penn State to stay focused on what they can control - what happens on the field.
``It doesn't matter what goes on around you,'' Mauti said. ``It's all about staying focused and ignoring the things that don't have to do with football.''
Mauti is the heart of a staunch defense that has had strong play all year from the front seven. Penn State, though, may not have standout defensive tackle Jordan Hill, who is listed as day-to-day with a left knee injury suffered against Purdue.
Mauti said Hill was feeling well and that the tackle was ``itching to play'' in what would be the last collegiate road game for Mauti, Hill and the other Penn State seniors. O'Brien said a final determination would be made later in the week on whether Hill would be able to play at Nebraska.
For all the attention on the front seven this year, the secondary has gradually improved its play this year after getting picked apart early in the season on third downs.
The unit came up with perhaps its best performance of the year last week. Against the Boilermakers, cornerbacks Adrian Amos and Stephon Morris contained Purdue's screen game with sure, open-field tackling, backed by safeties Malcolm Willis and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong.
It looks like ``Linebacker U'' is pretty comfortable now with the more aggressive schemes introduced by veteran defensive coordinator Ted Roof, in his first season at Penn State.
``I wouldn't say it took me a long time to learn the schemes, but it took me a while to get comfortable with the defense,'' said Morris, who was moved from the boundary cornerback spot to the field corner spot in the offseason.
The defense needs to be at its best to win at Nebraska, a site that figures to have a much different atmosphere than the ones encountered by Penn State at struggling Illinois and Purdue.
Either way, all three Big Ten road wins this season have been by at least 23 points. The key in each case has been Penn State's ability to jump out to big leads that have dampened crowd enthusiasm by halftime.
``Nebraska-Penn State, that's what college football is all about,'' O'Brien said. ``You have two big-time college football programs that have two good coaching staffs and a lot of good players playing in a great game in Lincoln. That atmosphere, hopefully it's fun.''
It will be even more fun for the Nittany Lions if they're able to fly back home Saturday night celebrating another `W.''
NOTES: O'Brien said TE Kyle Carter is day-to-day. Carter, Penn State's second leading receiver with 35 catches and 441 yards, missed the win over Purdue after spraining his left ankle against Ohio State. Asked how involved Hill and Carter have been at practice, O'Brien would only say ``they've been able to do some things.'' ... Zack Zwinak had his third 100-yard game of the season after rushing for 134 on 21 carries against the Boilermakers. And he is now listed atop the tailback depth chart along with Bill Belton, who started this year as the starting tailback but was slowed by an ankle injury. O'Brien said the competition for carries is still week-to-week depending on who does well in practice. ``Everything you get is earned,'' O'Brien said. `` It's earned on the practice field.'' ... Backup RB Curtis Dukes is out with an undisclosed head injury. The junior was hurt while covering the opening kickoff last week.