Bill O’Brien: Not a Penn State guy

Bill O’Brien: Not a Penn State guy

Bill O’Brien did what almost every college football coach does when a better opportunity comes along—he took it and ran. That, unfortunately, is the nature of the job.

But at Penn State, where the program is still reeling from scandal and sanctions, O’Brien’s departure feels like a larger betrayal than usual.

On Thursday, the Houston Texans announced the hiring of O’Brien to be their next head coach following a week-long courtship. His jump back to the NFL was always inevitable, but after just two seasons in Happy Valley, it feels like he’s leaving a job unfinished.

Six months into O’Brien’s tenure, the NCAA hit the program with crippling sanctions stemming from the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. The penalties included a reduction in scholarships and postseason ban—harsh, yet typical—and as if that weren’t enough, players were allowed to transfer from Penn State without losing a year of eligibility.

O’Brien helped stave off a mass exodus and incredibly led the Nittany Lions to an 8-4 record in his first season, earning college football’s coach of the year honors in the process. That success brought national attention though, and O’Brien quickly became the hottest head coaching candidate in NFL.

The Philadelphia Eagles were among the teams to sniff around the former Bill Belichick disciple last winter, but the buyout in his contract with the university was cost prohibitive. Over the summer, O’Brien tipped his hand, reworking his deal for a nice raise and some extra incentives, but also negotiating a reduction in the buyout.

Still, it seemed as if Penn State might have more time. Despite the sanctions, O’Brien managed to land a number of high-end recruits, most notably Christian Hackenberg. Widely regarded as one of the top quarterbacks coming out of high school, Hackenberg undoubtedly chose PSU in part due to O’Brien, who worked closely with Tom Brady as an assistant for the New England Patriots.

One year later, O’Brien is gone after a 7-5 season. Naturally, a lot of young men are feeling less certain about their decisions.

To the casual observer, the situation these student-athletes are in may not seem unique or unusual in the cut-throat world of major college athletics, where coaches are constantly jumping ship for the next big thing. In this case however, these kids stuck it out at Penn State or committed to the university when there was no promise of bowl games or even winning.

O’Brien was one of the primary reasons for that.

What makes the decision even more difficult to accept is the fact that the NFL would still be an option for O’Brien years from now, when the program is finally free and clear from sanctions and promises to young men and their families have been fulfilled.

He didn’t leave Happy Valley for a once-in-a-life opportunity. He left for the same kind of opening that is available every year.

Some of the reasons for disappointment are admittedly selfish. After watching Joe Paterno pace up and down the sideline inside Beaver Stadium for 40-plus years, Penn State simply isn’t used to these types of breakups. And the university can paint the job as more attractive than it was two years ago all they want, the odds of finding a better coach than O’Brien are slim to none.

O’Brien does deserve credit for restoring stability to the program over his two short years. Let’s face it, nobody who was anybody was having anything to do with that vacancy when it opened, and that was before the NCAA came down hard on PSU. Honestly, the position is more attractive now, which the university owes to O’Brien.

And nobody can begrudge a man for wanting to coach in the NFL, which O’Brien described last year as the highest level in his profession. The money is much better, and in Houston he’ll be taking over a team with plenty of talent already, plus the No. 1 pick in this year’s draft.

It’s the timing that kind of sucks, and if nothing else, that O’Brien wasn’t loyal to or honest with his players. According to reports, he was telling recruits as recently as December that he would be returning to Penn State.

None of which makes O’Brien a villain per se, just your run-of-the-mill sleazy college coach that the occupation almost demands, somebody who was willing to say and do whatever was necessary if it meant putting a winning football team on the field.

It turns out Bill O’Brien was never a “Penn State guy” at all. Having said that, the university and its legions of fans and alumni probably owe the man a debt of gratitude for saving the football program in the first place.

Bill O’Brien was never a Penn state guy, even if he was exactly what Penn State needed at the time.

Sixers burned by yet another point guard in loss to Celtics

Sixers burned by yet another point guard in loss to Celtics

The Sixers had been burned by point guards before. Many times, actually. 

Just a week ago, Kyrie Irving dropped 39 points in the Cavs' 112-108 win. Nineteen came in the decisive fourth quarter. 

On Saturday Isaiah Thomas did the same damage. The undersized All-Star tied his season-high with 37 points in the Celtics' comeback 107-106 victory (see instant replay).

“Isaiah’s an All-Star,” Jahlil Okafor said. “He showed us why tonight. He’s the head of their team and came up big for them like he usually does.” 

Thomas made his impact in spurts. During the Celtics' 9-0 second quarter run, he scored six of those points. In the fourth quarter, in which the game was decided, he dropped 12 straight Celtics points. Thomas finished the night 11 for 19 for the field and only 2 of 3 from three. 

The most telling stat was at the free throw line. Thomas shot 13 for 15 after attacking and drawing fouls, a point of emphasis by head coach Brad Stevens for the second half. 

Thomas scored 15 points in the first half. He noticed a change in the Sixers defense in the second and capitalized on it. The Celtics ability to stretch the floor with their three-point shooting bigs also created opportunities for Thomas to get to the rim. 

“In the second half they sat back a little bit and they were switching a lot,” Thomas explained, also noting, “We wanted to put Okafor in a pick-and-roll. He sits far back. I just wanted to attack him downhill. It’s hard for bigs to move those bigs legs they’ve got. So I just tried to stay in attack mode and I saw we were in the bonus.”

The Sixers have had problems defending the one spot all season. Isaiah Thomas is the fifth starting point guard to score 30 points or more against them. He joins Russell Westbrook (32), Jeff Teague (30 in overtime), James Harden (33) and Irving. Another five (Kemba Walker, John Wall, Eric Bledsoe, Mike Conley and Kyle Lowry) have scored 20 or more points. 

The oneness of these high-scoring point guards doesn’t fall solely on the Sixers backcourt, where Sergio Rodriguez has been assuming the starting role in place of the oft-injured Jerryd Bayless. These opponents have been doing their work inside the arc. Of the five who have scored 30, only two (Harden and Irving) attempted more than three treys. 

“We’re all working hard trying to stop them, but it’s easier said than done,” Okafor said. 

The next point guard the Sixers will face is Emmanuel Mudiay when they take on the Nuggets Monday. Last season Mudiay hit the game-winning, buzzer-beating three in Denver. 

Instant Replay: No. 7 Penn State 38, No. 6 Wisconsin 31

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The Associated Press

Instant Replay: No. 7 Penn State 38, No. 6 Wisconsin 31

BOX SCORE

INDIANAPOLIS — Penn State got bullied a bit Saturday, but never gave up its lunch money. 

It spent the second half taking control of the schoolyard.

After getting pushed around for much of Saturday night’s first half, the Nittany Lions were anything but punchy after the break. Penn State (No. 7 in the College Football Playoff rankings) got its high-powered offense into gear in the second and roared back for the school’s first victory in the Big Ten Championship game, 38-31, over No. 6 Wisconsin.

The Nittany Lions (11-2) are bound for the Rose Bowl for the first time since the 2009 season and are outright conference champions for the first time in 22 years.  

Penn State trailed by three touchdowns midway through the second quarter but allowed just three points the rest of the night. Quarterback Trace McSorley threw for 384 yards and a title-game record four touchdowns to spark a comeback that saw the Nittany Lions outscore the Badgers 24-3 in the second half. McSorley was named Big Ten Championship game MVP.

Wisconsin missed a 48-yard field goal early in the second half and Penn State needed just 11 seconds to take advantage. McSorley (22 for 31) hit Saeed Blacknall with a 70-yard touchdown pass to cut the lead to a touchdown. Saquon Barkley tied it at 28 later in the third with a 1-yard scoring run.

Blacknall ended the night with six catches for 115 yards and two touchdowns while DaeSean Hamilton had eight grabs for 118. 

Wisconsin retook the lead with a short field goal in the final seconds of the third quarter but Penn State went ahead for good on the ensuing drive, which ended with McSorley’s 18-yard touchdown pass to Barkley.

Tyler Davis added a 24-yard field goal later in the fourth and the Penn State defense sealed the victory when Grant Haley stuffed Wisconsin’s Corey Clement on fourth-and-1 with 1:01 to play.

The Nittany Lions fumbled the ball away twice in the opening half — one was returned for a short Badgers touchdown — but only trailed 28-14 at intermission after McSorley hit Blacknall for a 40-yard touchdown with under a minute to play in the half. 

Mike Gesicki caught McSorley’s first scoring pass, a 33-yarder, late in the first quarter.

Clement finished with 164 yards and a touchdown on the ground for the Badgers (10-3), who also got scoring runs from Bradrick Shaw and Dare Ogunbowale. Bart Houston was 16 for 21 for 174 yards. 

Smelling the roses?
Penn State is likely off to Pasadena for the fourth time in school history and is seeking to reach .500 in college football’s longest running postseason game. The Nittany Lions defeated Oregon 38-20 in the 1995 game but fell to Southern California in their other two trips, in 2009 and 1923.

It appears the Trojans might be their opponents once more; No. 4 Washington won the Pac-12 championship Friday night but appears headed for the playoff. The Rose Bowl gets its choice of Pac-12 runner-up Colorado (10-3) or 9-3 USC.

There is a chance Penn State could be selected to the College Football Playoff, but No. 1 Alabama, No. 3 Clemson and No. 4 Washington all won this weekend, while No. 2 Ohio State was idle. The playoff will be announced at noon on Sunday.

He’s fine
Sophomore running back running back Saquon Barkley showed no ill effects of a right foot injury suffered during a Nov. 26 win over Michigan State. He added the go-ahead touchdown — and another mention in Penn State’s record book — for good measure.

Barkley, who left in the third quarter of Nittany Lions’ penultimate victory, hauled in a touchdown pass from McSorley in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter to give Penn State the lead for good. He had a short scoring run earlier in the period.

Barkley broke Evan Royster’s sophomore rushing record with a 19-carry, 83-yard night to push his season total to 1,302 yards. He set the mark for Penn State freshman (1,076) last fall.

Nice run
Wisconsin’s Andrew Endicott’s 23-yard field goal late in the third quarter snapped a shutout streak that had seen Penn State outscore its opponents 82-0 in the second halves of games. The last scoring play before Endicott’s boot came in the second half of a 45-31 win over Indiana on Nov. 12.