Healthier Hull Focusing on Michigan

Now "90-95 percent" recovered from a knee injury, Penn State's outside linebacker is ready for this weekend's game with the Wolverines.

One thing seems clear: Penn State's full attention is now on Michigan. Not on a troubling loss at Indiana. Not on the fact that the Nittany Lions' season seems to be very much at a crossroads. Not on sanctions or scholarship reductions or the team's on-field shortcomings.

Just on Michigan, nothing else. That was the point Bill O'Brien drove home during his weekly news conference Tuesday. On no fewer than 12 occasions during his abbreviated briefing did O'Brien, in full Belichickian mode, use some derivation of the word “focus” in regard to Saturday's home game against the 5-0 Wolverines.

If you believe outside linebacker Mike Hull, the message has been received by the players. Hull, back in a prominent role against the Hoosiers after missing most of the season's first four games with a knee injury, said the disappointment of the 44-24 loss in Bloomington -- PSU's first loss in 17 meetings with IU -- was palpable.

“Long trip back,” he said Tuesday, “but we get that 24-hour grace period. We watched the film, put our mistakes behind us and now we're ready to move on to Michigan. Spirits were high yesterday, and we were just ready to prove ourselves again.”

He said Monday's practice was “sharp” and “crisp,” that everyone is, yes, focusing on Michigan, that the idea now is to “get that edge back and really just play assignment football and do whatever we have to do to win.”

So that's this week's talking point. Still hanging out there is O'Brien's postgame assessment, when he told reporters this is not “a normal Penn State team.” (He declined to address a question about that Tuesday, saying, once again, that the focus is on Michigan.) Still ahead is not only Saturday's game but one on Oct. 26 against another unbeaten club, Ohio State (to say nothing of a busy November). And still lingering is the notion that the Lions' confidence might have been shaken after they were outplayed so decisively by the Hoosiers.

“The team's confidence isn't shaken,” O'Brien said Tuesday, leaving it at that.

Hull knows as much as anyone about getting up off the mat. Expected to be one of the team's better players this season, he injured his right knee early in the season opener against Syracuse and missed most of that game and all of the victory over Eastern Michigan before giving it a go in the loss to Central Florida. Slow and uncertain that Saturday, he also sat out the Kent State game and, having had a bye week to recover, made 10 tackles against the Hoosiers.

He said he is “probably 90-95 percent” healthy now. “I'm sure I'll be more effective next week,” he said, “as opposed to where I was last week and the week before, so I'll just keep going.”

The injury knocked him back -- “I was really anticipating this season and having a good year and starting off on the right foot,” he said -- and the EMU game was the first he had ever had to sit out.

“It tore me up, not playing with my teammates,” he said.

He said he zeroed in on his “mental game,” to say nothing of his rehab, but admitted that he returned sooner than he should have.

“I knew it wasn't ready at that point,” he said, referring to the UCF game, “so I just needed to take another couple weeks off, rehab and get my knee to where I could move again and play at a high level.”

And now, he said, “I'm just trying to go out each and every game, just fly around and make plays for my team. I don't want to try to do too much. That's how you hurt the defense.”

Better, he added, to “just play fundamental, sound football and make the plays I'm expected to make.”

Which is not to say he's playing tentatively.

“This last game definitely gave me a lot more confidence, just getting out there again,” he said. “Whenever I said I don't want to do too much, I don't want to try to make too many plays and get out of position and compromise the defense. I just want to do my assignments.”

He wants to focus, in other words. As does everyone does.

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