STATE COLLEGE -- In every memorable college football season, there's a day like this one that seems made for reflection.
Not by the players or coaches. They can't afford to be reflective people. They are all about the current page and the next one. Too much to do, too much to absorb, too much energy to focus and no time to waste.
But for the fans who know the history of a program, it's always one of these penultimate games against relatively inconsequential opposition that seems to bracket time and place and later spawn the most vivid memories.
Penn State's 45-22 rout of Indiana was one of those games. Perfectly chilly for November but bathed in that slanted sunlight of approaching winter. All sorts of highlight plays. People drinking in their team in a game without tension. Like kids in a park.
It reminded me of the Michigan State game in 1994, won by PSU 59-31. Is this team anywhere as good as that one? Of course not. But it will be just as memorable.
That day almost exactly 18 years ago felt like an honorarium. I'm not looking it up, but as I remember it, George Perles' last MSU team hung in there and made an ersatz game of it, trailing just 31-24 before the Nittany Lions hit the accelerator and blew the Spartans away. It was only then that the full power and excitement of those unbeaten Nittany Lions went on full display, even more so than in the jaw-dropping blowout of Ohio State or the nail-biting road wins over Michigan and Illinois.
And the thing about it was, it was the end of the season, only the Rose Bowl left, the fans knowing they'd never see that team together in Beaver Stadium again and only once more at all. Ki-Jana Carter scored five touchdowns, a couple with spectacular open-field runs. And Kerry Collins threw his 21st and final regular-season TD pass to Freddie Scott on a field-spanning 56-yard streak that put the game on ice. It was an electric moment.
The current team is in no way a facsimile of that one. It has nothing approximating the talent. It can't do anything as easily. It doesn't make you say, “Wow!”
But it does make you say, “Wow.”
The four biggest reasons for that have been its new head coach, his blossomed quarterback, his favorite receiver and a linebacker who's become the face of the entire team. All four starred in this game. In a season with no postseason goals and no games with true individual meaning, I think this is the one people will recall involuntarily.
Matt McGloin continues to amaze. The former walk-on, booed and blamed for much of all team failures for the last two seasons, has blown off disparagement as a mere nuisance. On Saturday, he threw for a career-high 395 yards – second-best single-game mark in school history – and now owns team records for career TD passes (45), season completions (251) and season yardage (3,071).
Allen Robinson continues to rise above defenders to make spectacular plays. He yesterday broke O.J. McDuffie and Bobby Engram's record for season catches (63) and is one shy of the season TD-catch record held by Engram (13). The duo hooked up on a couple of high-wire plays where McGloin tossed it up as if for fun, just to see what his guy could do – while already knowing the result.
Michael Mauti, the inspirational leader of the team, suffered a knee injury that appeared serious. He was high-lowed and took a chop block while engaged. For a kid who already endured such injuries in his second and fourth seasons, it's brutal. He covered his facemask as he was carted off the field. And as he was, the entire stadium stood and applauded – loudly. I don't ever remember seeing anything like it.
But to appraise each of them individually, you must consider them as a unit. And so you turn back toward the coach, the architect of it all:
Bill O'Brien has been the antidote to all that ails Penn Staters these days. Everything about him has been smart. The way he's handled the clean-up of an unprecedented crisis. The way he's coached a limited team. The way he's decided on dealing with the things he can and discarding the rest. And being the measured, sensible but emphatic voice of the program, neither denying its burden nor shrinking from it.
Had I tried to imagine the optimum man for this job 11 months ago, I never would have even conceived someone as good as O'Brien. Better than perfect. That's how he's been.
That's why I had to ask him in a clear yes/no manner whether he would be the Penn State coach next season. I won't ask again. But I wanted to do so once myself in a way that made crystalline the essence of his response. If he was going to waffle, it would be all his doing.
Bill O'Brien has been the antidote to all that ails Penn Staters these days. Everything about him has been smart.
Me: “I think a lot of fans want to know the answer to this question and that's why I'm asking it. Are you going to be back here next season?”
O'B: “You guys gave legs last week to a story that... there's no story there. Y'know, I'm focused on one game at a time. I'm focused on this football team. That's not something that I even think about. I think about that I'm the head football coach at Penn State. And I'm looking forward to getting this team ready for Wisconsin. I mean, we give legs to a story that's not even there.”
Me: “It's a yes or no question.”
O'B: “It might be for you. For me, it's Wisconsin. And this football team and this senior class. That's where I think the questions should be directed: Indiana. The senior class. Getting ready for Wisconsin.”
Me: “Well, that's gonna sound to the fans like you're noncommittal.”
O'B: “I'm the head football coach at Penn State. I love coaching here. And I can't get back to work on Monday and get ready for Wisconsin.”
Actually, a simple “Yes” would have chopped off any legs the story may or may not have. It would immediately have been a non-issue. That's why I phrased the question the way I did.
I didn't even react to O'Brien's Tuesday press conference comment about a cbssports.com report that the Jacksonville Jaguars might again be interested in him. Because I know coaches always are taught by their agents to be noncommittal. In fact, I wrote exactly that in a Friday item, saying people should not get too worked up just yet.
I still feel that way. None of this necessarily means O'Brien is out the door.
It just means he won't lie. He won't sit there one day like Nick Saban did with the Miami fans and tell them he was absolutely staying and a few days later sign a lucrative contract in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
O'Brien is not going to hem himself in. He's not going to diagram a whiteboard when he doesn't know the package of possible plays yet.
That's the way the guy is. That's what makes him so good at what he does. And we're all just going to have to live with it.
And, believe me, I'm with all of you. I'm the last guy who wants to see him go.