It was only the spring game -- they call it the Blue-White Game in these parts -- meaning it didn't count. Only it sort of did, since the 60,000 true believers who flocked to Beaver Stadium wanted some sign that O'Brien, a first-time head coach at the age of 42, could escape that shadow.
The one belonging to Joe Paterno.
Can he stay true to some of the principles Paterno held dear during his 46 years as Lion King (and 62 years on the staff) -- notably the one about players being actual students -- while revamping significant aspects of the program? And more significantly, can he succeed at anywhere near the rate of Paterno, the winningest coach in Division I history? Because nothing else will matter, if he cannot.
O'Brien, the former New England Patriots offensive coordinator, has unveiled numerous changes since his hiring on Jan. 7 -- two months after Paterno was fired amid the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal, and barely two weeks before Paterno died of lung cancer at the age of 85.
The offense is different. Ditto the strength and conditioning program. Recruiting is more aggressive. Media access is more readily available. Players are allowed to sport jewelry and grow facial hair, two things strictly forbidden on Paterno's watch. Even the scoring system for the spring game --an Arenaball-ish 77-65 victory for the defense, which was rewarded for big plays, over the offense -- is different.
While revealing all these changes O'Brien has successfully walked that tight rope -- avoiding even a hint of criticism of the way things were done previously, while making it clear he is determined to put his own stamp on the program.
I know that I have a lot of confidence in my ability to lead us through what some people would say is a tough time right now, he said at his introductory news conference in January.
The players, having been exposed to him for the better part of three months now (including 15 practice sessions during spring drills), have been receptive to the new boss's approach.
He's shown he's ready to take us to the next level, linebacker Mike Mauti said recently. He tells us to jump, and we say 'How high?' We're enjoying the changes. We like what we see right now. I don't want to get into any comparisons, but we can tell the changes have been for the good, and everyone's buying into it.
But it has taken some getting used to, make no mistake about it.
It's kind of like we're all freshmen again, wide receiver Justin Brown said a few weeks ago, because everything's new.
The offense, often viewed as stodgy and outdated under Paterno, has been dragged, kicking and screaming, into the 21st Century. It will be the basis of the Patriots offense, O'Brien said at the beginning of spring practice, with an emphasis on passing and creative use of tight ends -- though he quickly added that there's only so much that can be done, given the circumstances.
You have a quarterback in New England, he said, that was there for 12 years.
Tom Brady, of course. No telling who the guy might be this fall at Penn State, though. Might be senior Matt McGloin, who was the best of the lot last year. Might be junior Rob Bolden, who also has plenty of experience but is woefully erratic. Or it might be redshirt sophomore Paul Jones, who has promise but has yet to play a down.
O'Brien did not so much as view any of the tape of the quarterbacks from last year -- nor that of any of the other offensive players -- knowing he was going to implement an entirely different system. He said he would evaluate everyone based only on their performance on his watch.
On Saturday, at least, there was little to separate the quarterbacks. Bolden threw three interceptions, the others one apiece. All three were sacked twice. Bolden was the only one to complete as many as half his passes (7-for-14), but the other two threw for more yardage -- Jones (6-for-15) accounted for 113, McGloin 105, Bolden 78 -- and Jones and McGloin (6-for-13) each threw a TD pass, while Bolden did not.
Afterward O'Brien said the race is still too close to call -- that he has to review film and let it soak a little bit before narrowing the field any further.
The QBs were free to use only about 10 percent of the new offense Saturday, according to the head coach. But they have seen a great deal more, and Jones, for his part, called it a quarterback's dream.
You're in control, he said. (O'Brien) calls a bunch of plays and you've got to get us in a good look. It's really on our shoulders. He says the quarterback's got to be the field general.
Asked how often he audibled at the line of scrimmage last year, McGloin said, Less than five, maybe.
And this year?
We might audible five times in a series, he said.
It's just a matter of who gets to do all that.
I feel like it's mine, Bolden said of the job. No reason it shouldn't be.
Actually, there is, beginning with his 7-for-26, three-interception showing in last year's loss to Houston in the TicketCity Bowl -- a game McGloin missed after suffering a concussion in a locker-room scuffle with teammate Curtis Drake.
But again, the slate is clean. There is much to be decided.
That's not quite as true on defense, now coordinated by Ted Roof (late of Auburn). Defensive tackle Devon Still, likely to be a high NFL draft pick next week, is gone. So too is the entire starting secondary. But there are some promising pieces in place, like Mauti and tackle Jordan Hill, not to mention some continuity.
Still on hand are Larry Johnson and Ron Vanderlinden -- the line and linebackers coaches, respectively -- the only assistants retained from the old staff.
Johnson and Vanderlinden are also two of the top recruiters, meaning they were in scramble mode when the scandal hit last November. The Lions hung on to 19 recruits, but lost some of the top ones -- notably cornerback Armani Reeves, linebacker Camren Williams and defensive tackle Tommy Schutt, all of whom opted instead for Big Ten rival Ohio State. (Defensive end Noah Spence, the top recruit in Pennsylvania, also became a Buckeye, after strongly considering PSU).
Undeterred, O'Brien and Co. began working on a new class. Eight recruits have already verbally committed for next year, including quarterback Christian Hackenberg and tight end Adam Breneman, two of the best players at their respective positions in the country. More than 100 recruits visited for the Blue-White Game.
Those players already on hand say they have benefitted greatly from the change in philosophies -- from High Intensity Training, an oft-questioned method, to Olympic-style lifting -- under new strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald.
One more change, albeit a small one: While Paterno always chose to meet reporters before the Blue-White Game, O'Brien convened his news conference afterward. And in the course of it, a reporter wearing a Boston Red Sox cap posed a question.
I love your hat, said O'Brien, a Massachusetts native.
The guy said something about it being a hard time for the Bosox at present.
It's a 162-game season, the coach said. Typical Red Sox fan.
The thing is, losing doesn't sit well anywhere, including Happy Valley. And that will never change.