Penn State linebackers Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti have claimed three Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week awards in the past four weeks.
Now their coach is entering awards discussions.
The Nittany Lions’ fourgame winning streak has sparked chatter about Bill O’Brien being a national coach of the year candidate.
So what does O’Brien think of this talk? Not much.
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“We’re 4-2 and we have murderers’ row coming up here starting with Iowa,” he said during Tuesday’s Big Ten teleconference. “There’s a lot of great coaches in this country. I have only coached six games in my whole career. That’s the farthest thing from my mind.”
Penn State is two days into a bye week. The Nittany Lions visit Iowa on Oct. 20 before closing with Ohio State, Purdue, Nebraska, Indiana and Wisconsin.
O’Brien has received praise for his ability to guide Penn State through harsh NCAA sanctions while improving his team’s personnel. Penn State, which rallied to defeat previously-undefeated Northwestern 39-28 last Saturday, and Ohio State are the only 2-0 teams in Big Ten play.
O’Brien, who had no head coaching experience when he was hired as Joe Paterno’s replacement in January, said the past six weeks have taught him plenty about his job.
“Everything is new having never been a head coach,”he said. “It’s kind of like drinking water from a fire hose. Something new happens every day and you have to just try to budget your time and do the best you can.”
Belton still healing
O’Brien conceded that sophomore tailback Bill Belton hasn’t returned to full strength.
Belton, who suffered a high ankle sprain in the season-opener against Ohio University, carried the ball four times for 12 yards against Northwestern. He didn’t play in the second half.
“I think that probably Billy is not 100 percent,” O’Brien said. “I think that was a significant ankle injury that he had against Ohio. In addition to that, he hasn’t played running back, we moved him in there in the spring and it’s a new offense, and he’s trying to get back into the groove of things. Billy is a good football player. I think this bye week will help heal him up and get him back into the rhythm of the offense.” Special work
O’Brien said the Nittany Lions are “going to be spend a lot of time” on special teams this week.
Penn State had another shaky special teams performance against Northwestern. Jesse Della Valle’s muffed punt in the second quarter led to a Wildcat touchdown, and Northwestern’s Venric Mark then returned an Alex Butterworth punt 75 yards for a touchdown in the second half.
Penn State’s net punting (30.3 yards per game) and field-goal percentage (.333) rank last in the Big Ten.
The Nittany Lions, though, rank second in kickoff coverage.
“I do agree areas of special teams have struggled, really the specialists, the kicker at times, the punter at times, the snapper at times,” O’Brien said. “I think overall there has been some really good things on our kickoff team. I would say that our punt return team has been decent. I think our kickoff return team is really pretty close to maybe doing something pretty good.
“I think we have to be careful when we say our special teams haven’t played well. I think the specialists need to play better. Overall, I think our kids on special teams have done some good things.”