The Wolfpack had just come back from a 14-point second-half deficit, made a huge defensive stand in the final minutes and gutted out a win over Pittsburgh. O'Brien strolled into a locker room full of excited, happy players and quickly put an end to the party.
"We're just not a very good football team right now," O'Brien said. "There's too many mistakes and I've done a bad job coaching."
Ouch. This is a side of O'Brien we haven't seen before. He's never been upset about a win in his coaching tenure at State, but this is a different team. Clearly he expects more out of this group than he has the previous teams. He expects to win and he expects to play well in the process.
"It's just a bad job," O'Brien said. "We have to face up to some facts. We were lucky enough to escape with a victory today but going into the ACC now I don't think that performance will get it done. So we have a lot of work to do this week."
The Wolfpack won because they have Russell Wilson, not because they played winning football. In the first half the team made mistakes on defense, offense and special teams. They missed two field goals, gave up tons of return yards, missed tackles and committed enough pre-snap penalties to make the 2006 team jealous.
"We could make a play if we could stay onside," O'Brien said.
The players seemed to get the message. He was so convincing that even Wilson seemed disappointed with how he played, on a night when he put the team on his back to the tune of 322 passing yards, four touchdown throws and 91 rushing yards.
"Nobody on our team had a great game," Wilson said. "I missed a couple of opportunities I feel like. I could have been better."
There was no excitement in the post-game interviews, no satisfaction with beating a well-regarded Big East team on a day when no other ACC team won outside of the conference. O'Brien had gotten to them early enough to get the idea in their heads – this was not acceptable.
"He ruined the mood a little bit," safety Earl Wolff said. "But we have to make a strong comeback from [tonight] and show everybody next week that we are a good team."
Wolff sounds like a player who just lost a heart-breaker and he was on the winning team. But the defense made a lot of mistakes, especially in the first half with poor tackling and poor defensive positioning, and O'Brien wasn't going to let his team get away with thinking too much of itself. Freshman Brandan Bishop said that coach 'never ruins the mood', but still said the defense has a lot it needs to improve on.
"We can get a lot better, "Bishop said. "There's a bunch of different areas – tackling, coverages, missed assignments stuff like that. Our defense can definitely improve off this performance and get it going. We weren't a very good football team."
The defensive improved in the second half, and really clamped down once the score became 31-17 in favor of the Panthers. From that point on the defense allowed negative four yards of offense and the Pitt offense had just 14 plays on four possessions and one first down. The biggest stop came on Pittsburgh's final possession, where the fumbled snap gave them four plays inside the Pack 10-yard line. Even O'Brien had to give the defense credit for how it played in the last 17 minutes.
"We actually got better," O'Brien said. "I don't have an explanation – that's why I'm a bad coach. I don't understand why we played the way we did. If its we were too excited, we were too tight, we were too whatever for this football team. But it's something, we just didn't seem to be in sink."