Penn State an unlikely division contender

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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Three months ago, the notion that Penn State would present Ohio State with its toughest test of the 2012 season seemed nearly impossible. Five weeks ago, it seemed even less likely that that.

On Sept. 8, the Nittany Lions suffered their second loss in as many games, a 17-16 defeat at the hands of Virginia. A week earlier, the Bill O'Brien Era in Happy Valley got off to a tumultuous start with a 24-14 loss at home to the Mid-American Conference's Ohio Bobcats.

But neither of two losses even came close to comparing to the hit that the Penn State program took less than two months before they occurred.

To say that the outlook for the Nittany Lions' 2012 season looked bleak on July 24 would be an understatement. As a result of the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal and the alleged subsequent coverup by school officials- including former head coach Joe Paterno- that was found in the Freeh Report, the NCAA hit Penn State with arguably the harshest sanctions in college football history.

In addition to a four-year bowl ban starting this season and a $60 million fine, the Nittany Lions were levied with the loss of 20 total scholarships from now through 2016, as current players were given the opportunity to transfer from the program, penalty-free. When key players such as star running back Silas Redd and wide receiver Justin Brown took advantage of the latter, the forecast for the first year of O'Brien's tenure in Happy Valley looked grim, but the former New England Patriots offensive coordinator never saw the possibility of a successful season escape his grasp.

"When the sanctions came out, I guess here that was frustrating time for a little bit, for maybe a day, but if you're inside this building, you can see where we have great kids here, we've got a hell of a coaching staff," O'Brien said. "It's never been doom and gloom in here. We can't control how you guys feel. We can't control how people outside the building feel. We can just control what we do."

After two weeks of action and an 0-2 record, that didn't look like enough. But after losing to the now No. 23-ranked Bobcats and Virginia by a missed field goal, O'Brien remained optimistic about the direction of his team- a sentiment that was confirmed when the team took the practice field on the Monday following its loss to the Cavaliers.

"It wasn't like we got blown out in the first two games. I mean, we lost to an Ohio team, I believe they're still undefeated and they're in the Top-25, so there's obviously no shame in that loss," O'Brien said. "When these kids showed back up for practice on the Monday after the Virginia game, really it was one of our better practices of the year to that point. Then I knew, like I always knew, that we had a bunch of resilient kids that were gonna continue to practice hard and just try to improve."

The improvement of this year's Penn State team is evident in its record. Since the Nittany Lions' loss to Virginia, Penn State has won five consecutive games, and its looked good doing so. In their five wins this season, the Nittany Lions have averaged 34 points, with quarterback Matt McGloin spearheading the pro-style offense that O'Brien brought with him from one of the NFL's most successful franchises.

"He's smart. He has a really good brain. He understands things. He can watch film with you and have an idea of how you want to run the ball, how you want to throw the ball," O'Brien said of McGloin. "He's very, very competitive and tough. He's a tough guy."

Defensively, Penn State has been just as impressive, ranking 22nd in the country in total defense, thanks to the play of a quartet of upperclassmen in defensive tackle Jordan Hill, cornerback Stephon Morris, and linebackers Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges.

"The one thing that they all have in common is they play very hard. They love playing for Penn State," O'Brien said. "They have a passion for the game. They practice hard, they prepare hard, they're well-coached, and those guys have really been great leaders for us all year."

As a coach who's already dealt with scholarship reductions, Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer is aware of the issues that the Nittany Lions could face moving forward. But Meyer is yet to notice a drop off in talent in Happy Valley, which isn't surprising to him given the tradition rich history of the program.

"I have great admiration for Penn State, always have been being from this area and what kind of school that is, just the academics and everything, just a strong, strong school," Meyer said. "When you have a new staff, you have a couple of things happen early in the year, but this is still Penn State."

O'Brien also knows that it may take at least a year for his program to feel the ramifications of the sanctions it is facing, but given the team's suddenly surprising start, it's hard for him not to enjoy the current success that his team is facing, especially given everything the Penn State program has endured in the last year.

"I feel like this is a very special place to play football and go to school. It's a phenomenal education, it's great place to play football in front of 100,000 fans," O'Brien said. "We're going to aim to go out there every single day and compete and go out there and win games. That's what our job is."