Penn State football: Walt Moody | Red Sox turnaround offers lesson for Nittany Lions

November 2, 2013 

Walt Moody

Penn State football coach Bill O’Brien has admitted publicly — even in a room of Pittsburgh Pirates fans — that he roots for the Boston Red Sox.

Growing up in Massachusetts, it’s hard not to have Fenway Park blood coursing through your veins.

So you’d have to think O’Brien had to smile at least a little Wednesday night after the Red Sox clinched their third World Series crown in 10 seasons with their 6-1 triumph in Game 6 against the St. Louis Cardinals.

World Series titles never get old for fans who suffered through the “Curse of the Bambino.”

You’d hope that O’Brien was smiling because last Saturday night there was little for he and his charges to be happy about after suffering one of the worst losses in program history, a 63-14 beatdown to Ohio State in Columbus.

How bad? Our television in the CDT office turned itself off at halftime. Really.

But, back to the Red Sox and Penn State’s coach.

Coming off a severe beating, maybe there’s a little lesson to be learned from the Red Sox’s worst-to-first story this year.

After their beloved “Sawx” collapsed in September 2011 and lost 93 games in 2012, the ever-pessimistic New Englanders didn’t have a lot of nice things to say about their team heading into this spring. In the offseason, the Red Sox management had secured the services of a bunch of baseball vagabonds that remind one of the movie “Major League.”

“Who are these guys?”

But somehow, the collection of players from the Island of Misfit Toys with “Duck Dynasty” beards found the right chemistry that led to the best record in baseball and eventually to a World Series crown.

It wasn’t always pretty.

Good pitching and defense did the bulk of the work.

And aside from David Ortiz, no one hit the ball that well in the Series, but the Red Sox got key hits from different players (Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, David Ross, Jonny Gomes) in the right spots to knock off the Cardinals in six games.

When you think about it, isn’t that what football is about?

Pitching, defense and making big plays at the right time.

And if you look at Penn State’s three losses this season, you can point to areas where Penn State didn’t make the critical play and the other team did.

Against Central Florida, there was the bolt of lightning from Storm Johnson’s 58-yard TD run that changed momentum in favor of the Knights, and a late fumble that blunted Penn State’s chances.

Against Indiana, Penn State led 14-13 in the second half until Tevin Coleman’s 44-yard touchdown run put the Hoosiers up for good. A missed fourth-down gamble and a fumble on a kickoff return sealed the deal.

Trailing 7-0 against the Buckeyes, Penn State drove into the red zone, but an interception stalled the march and it was all Ohio State and Braxton Miller from there.

Honestly, the Nittany Lions could be 0-3 in the Big Ten. If Michigan had not botched the end of regulation and two field goals in overtime, Penn State’s signature win could have been a loss instead.

Pitching, defense and timely hitting is a perfect recipe for success.

Christian Hackenberg can surely chuck the ball, the equivalent of a 95 mph fastball. But sometimes, the better pitch is a changeup. Boston’s Koji Uehara wasn’t the most devastating relief pitcher in the game because of his fastball (around 90 mph). It was his split-finger pitch that was nearly unhittable.

While Hackenberg may be encouraged to make big plays down the field, sometimes the best play is a five-yard dump-off to a back. Watch Peyton Manning any Sunday afternoon and see how he uses the singles and doubles to set up the home runs.

Then there’s defense.

The Red Sox had two Gold Glovers (second baseman Dustin Pedroia and center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury) up the middle.

If the loss of scholarships from NCAA sanctions is manifesting itself at Penn State, it’s definitely on the defensive side.

Depth, especially at linebacker and safety, has been a problem. And, it’s up the middle where the Nittany Lions have been burned for big plays.

Penn State has given up 147 points in three Big Ten games. Granted it was a different game in 1969, but those 11-0 Nittany Lions gave up 90 points — for the entire season.

But if you look at the Red Sox (and throw in an New England NFL team, too, if you like), they didn’t get it done with a bunch of superstars. They worked well together.

You don’t need a four-star and five-star guy at every spot to get it done.

How many walk-ons have made impacts for Penn State over the years? Josh Hull, Deon Butler, Jordan Norwood, Matt McGloin, just to name a recent few.

Whoever is on the field, they have to take advantage of the big moments. Allen Robinson and DaQuan Jones have done it all season. Bill Belton and Hackenberg have at times, too.

They need some help.

Penn State is last in the Big Ten with a minus-7 turnover margin.

But, starting with Illinois this afternoon, Penn State has a chance to build a little momentum and enhance that team chemistry as the season mmoves toward its conclusion.

Wisconsin is the only ranked team left on the Nittany Lions’ schedule.

A little momentum, even in the wake of a devastating defeat, can do wonders.

For proof, check out the boys in Beantown.

Walt Moody is sports editor of the Centre Daily Times. He can be reached at 231-4630 or wmoody@centredaily.com. Follow him on Twitter @wmoodycdt.

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