Few college football coaching jobs require the mental toughness like the one Bo Pelini occupies at Nebraska.
Football games are major events in the state. Wins are expected. Losses are dissected.
But there’s one coach Pelini concedes encountered a bigger challenge upon his hiring: Penn State’s Bill O’Brien.
The Cornhuskers served as the Nittany Lions’ first opponent following major legal maneuvers in the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal and Joe Paterno’s firing. Spending two days last November in State College helped Pelini understand the challenge awaiting Paterno’s permanent successor.
Two months later, O’Brien was hired as Penn State’s full-time coach. A year later, O’Brien will bring a 6-3 team into Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium. The Nittany Lions and 18th-ranked Cornhuskers meet on Saturday.
“I think he’s done a phenomenal job,” Pelini said Monday. “It shows what type of football coach that he is, but also the character of the guys in the program. They stuck together. They have done a heck of job, from the players, coaching staff, the new athletic director, Penn State as a whole. It’s as tough of a situation as you could possibly imagine, and I think they have done a phenomenal job with what they have overcome.”
Pelini strayed from comparing O’Brien’s situation to the one he inherited when he was hired as Bill Callahan’s replacement after the program won five games in 2007. Callahan went 27-22 in four years. Callahan replaced Frank Solich, who went 58-19 in six years. Solich replaced Tom Osborne, who 255-49-3 in 25 years.
Osborne won three national titles in his final four years. He’s a major reason why Nebraska is one of just seven schools with more than 800 all-time victories. The history yields super-sized expectations.
Pelini is 46-18 in five seasons. He has never led the Cornhuskers to a Bowl Championship Series game, but at 7-2 overall and 4-1 in Big Ten play they are positioned to represent the Legends Division in next month’s Big Ten title game.
“His situation was a lot different than mine,” Pelini said of O’Brien. “Obviously most of the time when you talk into a program, they are changing coaches for a reason. Their situation is very unique.”
Pelini’s players are also impressed with how Penn State has handled the past year.
“They are bouncing back,” senior safety P.J. Smith said. “Their program has a lot of tradition and those players have a lot of heart. That just shows the character of that team. They want to win.”
Burkhead still recovering
Penn State senior defensive tackle Jordan Hill isn’t the only star hoping to heal in time for Saturday afternoon’s game.
Nebraska senior running back Rex Burkhead, who rushed for 1,357 yards last season, has missed four full games and parts of three others because of a sprained MCL. Burkhead hasn’t played since the second offensive possession of a 29-28 victory at Northwestern on Oct. 20.
Pelini described Burkhead’s status as “day-to-day.” Burkhead has rushed for 405 yards on 47 carries this season.
“I think he pushes to do everything, but I think he’s also being smart on it,” Pelini said. “We are making sure he’s being smart on it. I haven’t said much to him about it. I’m not going to. I don’t want him to feel pressure from me or anybody else. He knows his body. We’re behind him 100 percent. One thing we know about Rex is that if he feels like he can play, he will play.”
Hill sprained his left knee in last Saturday’s 34-9 victory at Purdue. His condition should be a topic during O’Brien’s weekly news conference today.
Time set for Indiana game
Penn State’s home game against Indiana on Nov. 17 will begin at noon. The Big Ten Network is televising the Leaders Division contest.
The game marks the Hoosiers’ first visit to Beaver Stadium since 2009.
The time for the season finale against Wisconsin on Nov. 24 at Beaver Stadium will be announced at a later date.
Follow Guy Cipriano on Twitter @cdtguy.