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September 21, 2013Admittedly, before every press conference he conducts, Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien considers the questions that will be asked and his hypothetical responses to those hypothetical answers.
Nearly nine minutes had passed in his Kent State postgame press conference and, upon wrapping up his response to a question about Bill Belton, O'Brien had decided that enough was enough.
He wanted to talk about his defense.
"You guys need to ask me some defensive questions," O'Brien transitioned. "They're all offensive questions right now. The defense just pitched a shutout, and you guys were all over them last week, and they just pitched a shutout. So, can we get some defensive questions or what? No?"
Smirking in front of a room full of reporters who had, by and large, questioned the defensive abilities of his Nittany Lions following their 34-31 loss to a potent Central Florida team just a week prior, O'Brien looked like a cat picking from a lineup of mice backed into a corner.
He didn't wait for a response.
"I thought the defense played a helluva football game today. They pitched a shutout and I think John Butler and those coaches over there and that crowd of players over there did a helluva f Helluva job. Anybody got any other questions about the defense?"
O'Brien stopped himself from dropping the 'bomb', so to speak, but the sound was certainly familiar to those who had heard O'Brien's post-game interview after a gut-wrenching 24-21 overtime win against Wisconsin to round out the 2012 season.
With the room exchanging knowing glances at O'Brien's near-slip and, more important, his not-so-subtle admonition of their stories and columns from the past week, a reporter quickly asked whether or not the defense took the criticism personally and responded accordingly.
Crediting his staff's and players' competitive spirits and how they 'took it to heart' after a disappointing performance a week earlier, O'Brien said they collectively returned to practice with additional emphasis on improvement the past six days.
"I know this, they came out and they practiced very hard every single day," O'Brien said. "John did a great job putting together a good gameplan for this team. I don't know what the stats were, but it looked to me that it was a struggle to move the ball offensively for Kent State, and I thought our defense did a whale of a job."
He was right.
Though the Golden Flashes represented one of the worst offensive units in college football, the Nittany Lions' 34-0 shutout was in jeopardy only once through the course of the afternoon. Surrendering just nine first downs and 190 total yards, Penn State put together a defensive performance more reminiscent of recent seasons than that of a week ago.
Though the press conference had naturally moved on to other topics by that point, the exchange was not yet finished, though. Sensing the moment of levity a few minutes later, veteran beat reporter Neil Rudel of the Altoona Mirror played the game to perfection, pouncing on an opportunity to rib a coach that loves to give it and, more than people seem to realize, can take it, too.
Telling O'Brien that it 'sounded like you were going to say you have a bunch of fighters,' the Nittany Lions' head coach cut him off, fully in-step with the joke.
"You know what, I do. We do. We have a bunch of fighters and fantastic kids," he said. "I don't know anyone that debates me on that it's like my mom, she still doesn't believe I said 'fighters'.
"Do I look like the type of guy that swears? You're kidding me."
Now well into his second year at the helm, following the win, the moment was lighthearted enough, but O'Brien's dedication to defending his players and staff is no joke.
Though obvious improvements remain for a unit that still has plenty of question marks heading into a bye weekend and, in two weeks, the start of Big Ten play, there is no doubt that the man in charge at the Lasch Building welcomes the fight.
"OB is a great guy. He looks out for us," linebacker Nyeem Wartman said. "He believes in us and they just let us know that they believed in us and we just gotta play the way they think we could play. That's what we try to do every week."
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