Penn State Football

Penn State football: A look at the highlights and low marks in the first six games under O'Brien

Four wins. Two losses. Plenty of changes.

The first half of Penn State's football season provided a six-week glimpse into a new way of approaching football at the school.

From innovative offensive sets to names on jerseys, Bill O’Brien has given the program’s ardent supporters loads to digest — and enjoy.

If performances such as last Saturday’s 39-28 victory over Northwestern and last month’s 35-7 triumph at Illinois are repeated, the next six games might propel Penn State into the Big Ten Leaders Division’s title chase.

Before pondering trips to Iowa, Purdue and Nebraska and visits from Ohio State, Indiana and Wisconsin, let’s examine the first six games of the O’Brien era.

Biggest victory: Northwestern — Trailing 28-17 entering the fourth quarter, things looked bleak. But Matt McGloin resembled Tom Brady for a quarter, everybody on the defense lowered their 40-yard dash time by three-tenths-of-a-second and O’Brien unveiled five-star play calling. Not a bad way to satisfy alums looking to celebrate homecoming.

Toughest loss: Ohio University — The Virginia loss hurt, especially considering the defense forced four turnovers. Losing a season-opener to Mid-American Conference team 24-14 on your own field hurts more, especially considering the drama players and coaches experienced during the off-season.

Best coaching decision: Naming McGloin the starting quarterback on June 1 — Three months of job uncertainty isn’t healthy. So imagine how McGloin felt after spending two years of sharing the quarterback duties with Rob Bolden. O’Brien declared McGloin the starter exactly three months before the opener, giving the fifth-year senior the entire summer to work with his young receivers. McGloin has responded by completing 136 of 221 passes for a Big Ten-leading 1,499 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Biggest coaching gaffe: Sticking with Sam Ficken against Virginia — Missing field goals from 40 and 38 yards rattled the sophomore. He proceeded to miss three more field goals, including a 42-yarder as time expired. He also had an extra point blocked. Kicker/punter Matt Marcincin and versatile senior Evan Lewis, who kicked some last year, also made the trip. A change might have prevented a 17-16 loss. Marcincin left the team for personal reasons last month.

Offensive MVP: McGloin — The offensive line, which returned just one starter, has progressed nicely and Allen Robinson (41 catches, 524 yards, 7 TDs) and Kyle Carter (23 catches, 279 yards) might be the Big Ten’s top young receiving duo. Penn State has committed just five turnovers, a sign that McGloin directs a tidy offense. His 13-for-15 fourth-quarter performance against Northwestern is memorable stuff.

Defensive MVP: Michael Mauti — Mauti blasted the NCAA for the recruiting frenzy it created by offering Penn State players a transfer waiver. The fifth-year senior then opened this season by blasting skill players who dare to come his way. Mauti, who has a team-leading 57 tackles and two interceptions, has earned two Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week awards. If Vince Lombardi were still around, he would scold the committee overseeing the award bearing his name. Mauti isn’t among the quarterfinalists for the Lombardi Award, which honors the nation’s top linebacker. Puzzling.

Subtle standout: Mike Farrell — The senior offensive tackle has flipped between the left and right sides depending on redshirt freshman Donovan Smith’s physical condition. Either way, the 6-foot-6, 306-pound Farrell has developed into a reliable bookend who’s beginning to attract attention from NFL scouts.

Biggest surprise: Zach Zwinak —When Silas Redd left, nobody predicted Zwinak would be Penn State’s leading rusher with 317 yards on 68 carries after six games. Lacking the flash of other runners, Zwinak has plowed his way to two straight 100-yard performances. He’s only the eighth Nittany Lion to post consecutive 100-yard rushing games.

Top newcomer: Deion Barnes — Penn State’s next dominating pass rusher. The redshirt freshman defensive end from Philadelphia leads the Nittany Lions with four sacks. Once he learns the nuances of the position, it will take more than one man to block him. He might be the best of a talented group of young defensive ends.

Best true freshman: Da’Quan Davis — Imagine Penn State’s secondary depth if Davis didn’t come along. Following the lead of outspoken senior Stephon Morris and former high school teammate Adrian Amos, the 5-foot-10, 161-pound Davis skipped the intimidated phase most young players experience. His progress has allowed Amos to play safety in third-down situations.

Best coaching hire: Mac McWhorter — Who knows how long the offensive line savant from the south wants to keep coaching? For now, he’s what Penn State’s big men need. McWhorter gives the line a knowledgeable, uniformed voice. His work has helped the Nittany Lions develop reliable options beyond the top five. He’s also cultivating solid relationships with high school coaches throughout central Pennsylvania.

Biggest second-half game: Oct. 27 vs. Ohio State — The matchup involving programs facing postseason bans might determine the Leaders Division title. Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes strutting into town should fill Beaver Stadium. The winning coach becomes the frontrunner to capture Big Ten Coach of the Year honors.