Penn State Plays Bowl Substitute Against Also Ineligible Ohio State

Penn State Plays Bowl Substitute Against Also Ineligible Ohio State

Since the day Bill O’Brien took over as head coach of Penn State’s fractured football program, he’s consistently discussed how great it is to play college football in Beaver Stadium in front of 100,000 fans on national television. To O’Brien, coaching anywhere between six and eight “bowl” games was better than any bowl trip teams might make on an annual basis.

This week, O’Brien will coach his first game with a genuine bowl, as Penn State prepares to take on perhaps their biggest rival.

The Ohio State University.

Ohio State is the only Big Ten program Penn State has played annually since joining the Big Ten in 1993. With the fading rivalries with Pittsburgh and a lopsided series against Temple, Penn State has long been without a true rival. Even though Penn State fans get amped for the Buckeyes every year, the Ohio State faithful recognize Penn State as their second or third best rival. For Ohio State, it is all about beating Michigan. Then, perhaps, Wisconsin or Michigan State. It may be that lacked of mutual animosity that fuels the Penn State side of the rivalry.

The fact is, when Ohio State and Penn State get together there is generally more than simple bragging rights on the line. Since 2005, the winner of the Penn State-Ohio State game has gone on to win the Big Ten’s automatic berth five times. Between the two of them they have played in eight BCS bowl games over that same stretch.

Of course this year things will be slightly different, with both programs serving a postseason ban as part of separate NCAA sanctions. Nonetheless, the Big Ten is allowing Ohio State and Penn State to compete for a Leaders Division championship, and the trophy that goes with it. Try telling these players that does not matter. For Penn State, having anything to play for cannot be overlooked.

So when it comes down to it, who has the upper hand this weekend? Penn State’s offense has shown flashes of brilliance with a new and improved Matt McGloin leading the charge under center. McGloin is putting together a legitimate Big Ten MVP kind of season with improved efficiency, awareness and the decision-making allowing him to tuck and run when needed.

Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller has the ability to make defenses pay for a slight mistake with his own legs. Penn State’s best chance to win might be if they can force Miller to beat them through the air. It was a similar approach they have executed before, against Miller in Columbus last season and the year before against Michigan’s Denard Robinson.

Miller is just a sophomore and will be playing in one of the most raucous environments he has played in thus far. He has lost games at Michigan and at Nebraska, and Saturday night Miller makes his first start at Beaver Stadium. Last week, Miller was taken to the hospital after taking a big hit against Purdue. How will the sophomore handle the pressure and respond after taking a hit this week?

If there is one clear advantage Penn State appears to have this week, it is on defense. The Nittany Lions have been much more consistent on defense this season, especially since blowing two second-half leads in back-to-back weeks to start the season. Ohio State’s defense has played well but has had moments of incompetent tackling and total breakdowns. Penn State has some young playmakers in Bill Belton and Allen Robinson that might be capable of taking advantage of a sloppy Ohio State defense, but McGloin and the offense will have to flex their muscle with the tight ends, which have been playing very well early on for O’Brien.

All week students have camped out for this game, as this is the most important game of the season, and perhaps the most important home game since the 2005 game, when a victory over Ohio State sent a loud message to the college football world that Penn State was back. A win Saturday evening would send another loud message, that Penn State is not going anywhere.

Make no mistake about this weekend’s game. It is a tough battle for Penn State. It is a massive challenge for O’Brien, who must battle coaching wits with one of the best in college football, Urban Meyer. There is plenty of excitement surrounding the program and this game. How do they handle this type of situation? Do they thrive on the buzz or crumble by going overboard on adrenaline? These are the type of concerns O’Brien and his staff must be able to address leading up to the game.

The importance of this game actually goes beyond the typical win or loss. Penn State is expecting at 100 recruits to attend the game, which includes all current commitments. A win could go a long way to showing potential prospects what message O’Brien is trying to send, which is playing in a packed Beaver Stadium is still a worthy experience in itself. Any recruit on the sidelines for this game will also have a chance to play in a bowl game in their senior year.

A bright future is possible for Penn State, regardless of the outcome of this weekend’s game. But without postseason eligibility, this will have to serve as the next best thing.

According to O’Brien, this is the best thing.

Challenges await Darryl Reynolds, Villanova in run to repeat as national champs

Challenges await Darryl Reynolds, Villanova in run to repeat as national champs

VILLANOVA, Pa. — Darryl Reynolds said it hurt. And he wasn’t alone. 

A month ago, Reynolds and the rest of the Villanova Wildcats found out five-star freshman big man Omari Spellman would not be eligible to play in 2016-17.

And despite Spellman — at 6-foot-9 and 260 pounds — being the biggest competition cutting into Reynolds’ playing time for his senior year, Reynolds understood the ramifications from losing what was expected to be a key cog in Villanova’s next run for glory.

“We lost a — no pun intended — big piece to the puzzle,” Reynolds said Tuesday at Villanova’s media day. “He went down, but everybody else has realized that we need that much more from everybody else.

“Me and Omari are close, in more ways than on the court. It would’ve been exciting to play with him. But it also provided that much more motivation.”

Motivation because Reynolds, a Lower Merion grad, also understands what the ramifications mean for him, too. The 6-foot-9, 240-pound senior may arguably be the most important player on the 2016-17 Wildcats. 

For three years, Reynolds has largely taken a backseat, hidden by the shadow of Daniel Ochefu. Now he’s front and center.

“He battled through that,” fellow senior Josh Hart said. “Never complained. Never had any down moments. Brought it every single day. We know he can play at this level.”

Reynolds heads a position in which Villanova was supposed to have depth. Now it has question marks. Reynolds and Spellman were going to be a 1-2 punch inside and a perfect supplement to a bevy of offensive talent around them. The question marks up front include sophomore Tim Delaney and freshman Dylan Painter. How quickly the two of them get going will be big. And so, too, will be figuring out where Fordham transfer forward Eric Paschall fits in the rotation.

Coach Jay Wright, who said Reynolds would be a starter, talked more about the other pieces behind Reynolds when asked what he’d be expecting from the senior big man.

“I think part of our challenge is Tim Delaney and Dylan Painter,” Wright said. “Which one of them, if not both of them, can step up and give us the depth that Darryl gave us last year up front when we needed size? Down the stretch in big games against big-time teams, you need that size. We’ve got to develop Tim and Dylan and see how they do with that, see how Eric Paschall can do. Can he play bigger? We definitely have our challenges.”

Those challenges also include replacing leadership roles vacated by Ryan Arcidiacono, Ochefu and a trio of walk-ons.

Insert Reynolds there, too. The Wildcats will start three seniors this year. Hart and Kris Jenkins may do most of the scoring, but they’re pretty reserved off the court and when talking to the media.

“Obviously Ryan (Arcidiacono) was a great leader for us. He was our rock,” Hart said. “When you look at this team, a lot of times we look at [Reynolds]. He calms everybody down. He vocally tries to make sure everybody’s on one accord. Basketball-wise, he’s always been good. You saw the Providence game last year when we needed him to step up and he had, what, like 19 and 11?”

Hart remembers the numbers well, even if he added an extra rebound to the ledger. Reynolds was 9 for 10 from the floor and had two blocks in 36 minutes of action to help the Wildcats earn revenge with a road win after the Friars beat them in Philadelphia two weeks prior.

That game was the last of a three-game stretch in late January into early February when Ochefu was sidelined with a concussion. Reynolds’ minutes over that stretch: 29, 31 and 36, respectively.

That experience, Reynolds says, coupled with the rest of 2015-16 — when he saw an uptick in minutes from his sophomore season’s 5.4 per game to 17.1 per game — will be easy to draw from in 2016-17.

“There’s nothing like getting out there and actually playing,” Reynolds said. “You see a lot from the sidelines. You learn a lot playing spot minutes. You get different things. But just being out there throughout entire games, playing 20-plus minutes, it teaches you things that you could never have learned from another perspective. I learned a lot from those experiences and I think it made me the player that I am in many ways. It’s the same thing with this year. I’m still going to learn a ton in a sense of being out there that much more and not having Daniel. 

“In many ways he taught me a lot. So not having him, not having that voice in my ear, not having that guy to go against in practice, it will make me grow up. 

“Nothing wrong with that,” he said with a smile.

Doug Pederson not afraid to get agressive with play-calling

Doug Pederson not afraid to get agressive with play-calling

Talk to Doug Pederson and he comes across … what’s a nice way to put it … dry?

Very nice guy. Very friendly. Very down to Earth. But not the most dynamic personality in public.

Which is why his personality on gameday has been so surprising.

Pederson is a risk taker as a playcaller. Aggressive and fearless.

Whether it’s going for it on fourth down with the lead, going for two after a successful PAT or throwing deep in a situation that doesn’t necessarily call for it, Pederson has proven to be the proverbial riverboat gambler that Chip Kelly was expected to be but never became.

“My personality is probably a little more conservative by nature, I think,” Pederson said Monday. “You'd probably agree with that.”

Pederson got a laugh with that comment because his public persona is exactly the opposite of his gameday demeanor.

It only took one day before we all got a taste of Pederson’s fearlessness.

In the season opener against the Browns, with the Eagles clinging to a 15-10 lead and a rookie quarterback making his first NFL appearance and a 4th-and-4 at the Browns’ 40--yard-line, he kept the offense on the field.

Carson Wentz responded by connecting with Zach Ertz on a five-yard gain to move the chains, and one play later, the Eagles took command on Wentz’s 35-yard TD pass to Nelson Agholor.

Six weeks in, the Eagles are 5 for 5 on fourth down. Only the Falcons have converted more fourth downs in the NFL this year, and they’re 6 for 10.

In the win over the Bears, the Eagles were 3 for 3 on fourth down, their best fourth-down conversion day in nine years.

This is the first time in 14 years the Eagles have converted five or more fourth downs through six games.

According to Pro Football Reference, the Eagles are one of only seven teams in NFL history to attempt five or more fourth down plays through six games and still be at 100 percent. The Lions are also 5 for 5 this year.

Pederson said analytics are a big part of his decision-making process, but he also trusts his instincts.

“I think it's both,” Pederson said. “But I trust our guys and I trust our offensive line and I think it sends a great message to the rest of the team, to the defense and special teams, that, ‘Hey, if we can convert this and stay on the field,’ it sends a good message.

“And on the other side of that, if you do convert, (it’s about) the message you send to the other team and the fact that you're going to stay aggressive.”

The Eagles are 29th-best in the NFL on third down at just 34 percent. But they’re one of only three teams that’s at 100 percent on fourth down.

“It's kind of a crazy deal when you're not great on third down, but you can be 5 for 5 on fourth down and convert them,” Pederson said. “It's a weird deal. But credit to the guys for the execution.

“I'm going to continue to look at it. I don't ever want to be in a position that I'm going to jeopardize the team at the time (by being too aggressive). Looking at the five fourth-down decisions this year, I don’t think they put us in any harm at that time.”

Wentz is 3 for 3 for 21 yards on fourth down, with the four-yard completion to Ertz, a seven-yard first down to Jordan Matthews in the Bears game and a nine-yard to Dorial Green-Beckham, also in the win in Chicago.

He also rushed six yards for a first down on a 4th-and-2 Sunday in the win over the Vikings. The Eagles’ other fourth-down conversion this year was Ryan Mathews’ one-yard TD on a 4th-and-goal against Chicago.

Pederson said as an assistant coach under Andy Reid, he always found himself asking himself whether he would be conservative or aggressive in crucial situations.

We’re all learning the answer now.

“Yeah, you definitely put yourself in those situations, as a coordinator and a position coach,” he said. “Putting yourself in those spots, it's a lot easier when you're not making the decision obviously to go, ‘Oh, yeah, I would have not gone for it there or not gone for it there.’

“Now, being in this position, it's my tail on the line if we don't convert.”