Nittany Lions' Backs to the Wall

According LB Mike Hull, the old cliché rings true for the Penn State football team these days. Starting with Purdue this week, he and his teammates still have a chance to finish on a high note.

Clichés wouldn't be clichés if they didn't have a ring of truth, and on Tuesday morning Penn State linebacker Mike Hull trotted out this oldie but goodie: “Our backs are kind of against the wall.”

Hard to argue with that. In fact, that has been the case for the Nittany Lions off and on for the last seven weeks, as they have alternated losses and victories. That leaves them 5-4 heading into Saturday's home date against 1-8 Purdue, with games against Nebraska and Wisconsin to follow.

It also lends credence to something coach Bill O'Brien said during his weekly news conference Tuesday: “You are what your record says you are.”

That is something first uttered years ago, by Bill Parcells, and it certainly applies in this case: The Lions are great only when the ball is in Allen Robinson's hands, and sometimes good enough at enough other things to win. But not always. Which is how you wind up 5-4.

As Hull said, “What we put on tape is what we are.” That is not only a variation on the O'Brien/Parcells chestnut, but also a twist on something NFL players like to say: “The eye in the sky doesn't lie.”

The point is, there is only so much anybody can say or do at this point. The Lions' leaders -- middle linebacker Glenn Carson, and offensive linemen John Urschel and Ty Howle -- have addressed the team since last Saturday's 24-10 loss at Minnesota. And O'Brien delivered a “real passionate” speech right after the game, according to Hull.

“He just said he wants to send these seniors out as winners,” Hull said, “and he's going to do everything in his power to do the best job he can to send these guys out on a great note. We've just got to help him out and help the seniors out, and do a great job these next three games.”

For the first time in nearly two seasons on the job, O'Brien did not allow his players to be interviewed following that loss. He said on Tuesday he doesn't regard that as any big deal.

“I think after the game on Saturday we had a bunch of guys that were not happy with the outcome of that game,” he told reporters, “and I felt like I wanted to talk to them more than I wanted you to talk to them.”

He was as frustrated as anyone else -- frustrated that after a tough first half the defense blanked the Gophers in the final two quarters, only to see PSU unable to put up any points itself.

“I'm just very frustrated when we don't score touchdowns,” he said.

He said it would be a mistake to compare this team to last year's, which seemed to improve as the season went on. This club, he noted, has “improved in some areas. In other areas it hasn't improved.”

He didn't get into the specific areas in which the Lions need to be better, but mentioned the running game and kickoff coverage as spots where they have made strides. Oh, and the defense was good in the second half against Minnesota.

Other than that, he acknowledged that it has been “an up-and-down year” and believes, as Hull appears to, that they need to regroup and make yet another stand Saturday. That it will have to come against a team that appears to be the worst in the Big Ten matters little to O'Brien.

“We don't have any problems focusing on Purdue,” he said. “We respect Purdue.”

With a victory, the Lions would ensure themselves of no worse than a 6-6 finish. That would be “a disappointment,” Hull said, because everybody wants to win all three games. “It's not going to be easy,” he added, “but we're definitely capable of doing it.”

To date, he said, “We've had an all-right season. That's the way I would put it. We've lost to some tough teams. We've lost to some teams we could have beaten, which is tough. But the season's not over. We're still pushing forward, and these next three games are real crucial. We've got to just buckle down and get the wins whenever we need them.”

Their backs, after all, are once again against the wall.

“We just feel like a lot of people may be doubting us right now, so we've got to stick together as a family, as a team,” defensive end C.J. Olanyian said. “It started (Monday), but each day, all the way to the game, we're going to do whatever we need to do as a team and as a defense to make sure we put ourselves in the right position so we can win this weekend.”

As O'Brien said, “There's a lot to play for. There's the respect of your opponents. There's your teammates. There's the tradition of Penn State football. In Penn State, there will never be a question of what is there to play for.”

There's little doubt he believes all that, but it was at least a little interesting that during Tuesday's session he spent a fair amount of time extolling the virtues of those players who are redshirting this season, as well as some youngsters who stand to play a little more down the stretch. He mentioned in particular tight end Adam Breneman, wide receiver Geno Lewis, and linebackers Nyeem Wartman and Brandon Bell.

Wartman and Bell figure to get more run, now that outside 'backer Ben Kline is done for the season. O'Brien said Kline tore a pectoral muscle against Minnesota, and will undergo surgery not only for that injury but the shoulder injury he has been battling all season.

As for the defense as a whole, there is “still a lot of room for improvement,” in Hull's estimation.

“We need to play together as a unit,” he said. “Seems like most guys are doing things right, but every now and then, you'll have a few plays here and there, you'll have 10 guys doing something and one guy not, which is a challenge of football. It's an imperfect sport. We've got to strive to get everyone on the same page.”

That was most noticeable against the Gophers on third and fourth down. Minnesota converted nine of 17 third downs, including a touchdown on third-and-10 late in the first half, and went 3-for-3 on fourth down.

“Third down and fourth down, we practice that every week,” Olanyian said. “We know as a defense that's the money down. That's a down, we've got to get off the field. That particular day, we didn't perform the best we could.”

Hull said it didn't have anything to do with communication, which was an issue earlier in the season. The Lions, he believes, have actually improved in that area. But neither could he put his finger on what went wrong.

“For some reason on third downs we just weren't making plays and they were,” he said. “It didn't have anything to do with communication, really. We just needed to make those plays whenever it was crucial.”

Hull also had a physical scare when he took a hit on his injured right knee in the first half, but doesn't believe it will be a lingering problem.

Because he has been wearing a brace on the knee, he said, “I think that kind of saved me, and a little bit of luck (was) in there, too. It hurt for about five or 10 minutes, but after that it was pretty much good. Got some pain medication and stuff on the sidelines, so they did a great job with that, and it didn't really bother me too much the rest of the game.”

He has other concerns. Everyone does, as the Lions try to break out of the one-step-forward/one-step-back pattern they have been following.

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