UNIVERSITY PARK – Penn State’s October by the numbers:
Zero — Number of players who have left the program.
Zero — Number of losses.
Zero — Number of coaching and system changes.
After 11 months filled with more bumps than a deteriorating road, Penn State has settled nicely into its fall routine.
“There hasn’t been a lot going on around us,” senior safety Jake Fagnano said. “It’s just football. That has been a key part to our success.”
Those are words that haven’t been uttered around the Lasch Building and Beaver Stadium since last year at this time. The drama surrounding the Nittany Lions has at least temporarily subsided, allowing players and coaches to use last week’s bye as an opportunity to refresh.
Many players returned home and watched football in peace. Coach Bill O’Brien and his assistants spent the weekend on the road, selling a suddenly revitalized program to athletic teenagers.
One teenager, DeMatha (Md.) High School running back Mark Allen, committed to Penn State. Allen doesn’t graduate high school until 2014.
Has football normalcy returned to Penn State?
Signs point this way.
“Yeah, there’s been some things that have happened,” O’Brien said. “But what’s impressed me about this team and this coaching staff and through six games and training camp and spring practice is the poise, the ability to focus, the ability to understand the task at hand and not worry about all the things that you can’t control.”
The focus has propelled the Nittany Lions (4-2) into a desirable position. They are one of four Big Ten teams without a conference loss. Ohio State, Michigan and Iowa are the others. In a favorable scheduling twist, Penn State visits Iowa (4-2) on Saturday.
Meeting the Hawkeyes, who nipped Michigan State 19-16 in double overtime last weekend, should prevent Penn State from becoming too comfortable with recent events.
“A lot of people came back a little anxious this week,” sophomore wide receiver Allen Robinson said. “Being away from football really makes you want to get back into it.”
Monday’s practice, the Nittany Lions’ first since last Wednesday, illustrated the vigor Robinson described.
“I thought they looked energized,” O’Brien said. “They came back with effort.”
O’Brien then issued a disclaimer. Iowa might have even more momentum than his own team.
“Our team needs to understand that it’s one thing to have a bye week, it’s another thing to be playing a team like Iowa,” he said. “We’ve got to go out here and be precise and practice hard with great effort every day and try to equal out that momentum.”
Concocting ways to slow Iowa beats the alternative. Penn State lost 14 players from July 23, the day the NCAA announced major sanctions against the program, to Sept. 26, the Wednesday before the Illinois game. The past 20 days represents the longest gap between player defections since NCAA announcement.
The most recent distractions are seemingly minor ones.
Running back Curtis Dukes, who has gained 98 yards on 26 carries, told his hometown newspaper, the Watertown (N.Y.) Daily Times, last week that he’s unhappy with his playing time and might leave after the season. O’Brien’s reaction?
“It’s a free country,” he said. “Curtis is working hard and he’s a member of the football team. That’s all I have to say about that.”
Even social media outbursts are being brushed aside. Outspoken senior cornerback Stephon Morris posted this on his Twitter account Monday night about the possibility of the team looking ahead to next week’s game against Ohio State: “Ppls stop looking ahead to next week. This is a huge game, we hate them, they hate us. We’re focused on Iowa and that’s it. One game at a time.”
“Do you know what I hate?” he asked reporters at his weekly news conference Tuesday. “I hate Twitter.”
The statement incited chuckles.
Less than 20 minutes later, Fagnano, a fifth-year senior, fielded a question about the calm surrounding the program. He exhaled and provided a telling answer.
“It’s very relaxed,” he said. “We are coming off our bye week. We got to get off our feet this weekend. We had a great day of practice (Monday). We are all very comfortable. We all feel good. The team feels pretty good around each other.”