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September 16, 2013

Column: O'Brien's message resonates after loss

For whatever shortcomings Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien and his Nittany Lions had on display Saturday night against Central Florida, one thing is certain:

His players and assistant coaches understand - and, in many cases, hang on - seemingly every word he says.

In one of his first responses to a question after the loss Saturday night, O'Brien relayed the message that he presented to his team and staff while maintaining a sense of optimism about the team's future.

"We just have to regroup tomorrow and figure out what we can do better," he said. "One thing I know about the guys in that locker room, like I've said a million times, I really enjoy coaching them and they never quit, they never quit. It's a lot of fun to coach these kids. We'll do better, we'll keep improving."

As player after player trudged into the Beaver Stadium media room Saturday evening, accompanied each by a box of pizza with seemingly little effect on morale, the press horde looking for answers was met by a familiar refrain. Whether the words were exactly the same or not, the message was nearly identical to that of their head coach just minutes earlier in the post game locker room.

"We have a motto, I'm sure you've heard of it, to win the day. You just gotta try to make sure some guys go tomorrow, watch film, Monday watch film, practice and try to win each day so we make sure this won't happen again," redshirt junior defensive end C.J. Olaniyan said.

Though the story line may seem trite at this point, the reality is that every member of the team that made it through the Jerry Sandusky scandal and its fallout, especially including all of the 2012 season and its lead up, has had to persevere through more than simple losses on the football field.

Not used as an excuse or crutch for shortcomings, Penn State's staff also doesn't ignore or gloss over the challenging realities that exist due to the NCAA's sanctions against the program.

"Look back on last year. This is a program that has responded in a lot of ways to a lot of stuff worse than losing to Central Florida, 34 to 31," defensive coordinator John Butler said. "We've got tough guys and tough coaches.

"How your team responds to a loss ultimately defines your team a lot more than how it responds to a win. We need to play better, so that was the mindset and theme of Coach O'Brien. We've just gotta put this one behind us and learn from it. In 24 hours, put it behind us and focus on Kent State, try to play better next week."

Across the board, answer after answer reflected a belief that not only would the loss not kill the team's spirit, but instead would make it stronger.

In fact, Adam Gress, a fifth-year senior offensive lineman with little playing experience, but plenty of time in the program, had no hesitation when identifying one of the key strengths of his team.

"We keep on working. I think that's one thing that our team absolutely has is that win or lose, this happens last year, we started off zero and two, and we ended the season eight and four," he said. "I think it's just important that we work hard, we put the past in the past and we come out stronger next game and get ourselves on a roll and we keep on going."

For the players that haven't truly been through tough times with their Nittany Lion brethren yet - from quarterback Christian Hackenberg and his true freshman teammates to the redshirt freshmen just beginning their playing careers in earnest this season - Butler said that their development will continue.

And, with that development and evolution, expectations will remain the same and results are likely to follow.

"I mean, we've got a young football team. We've got a lot of young guys playing other than basically DaQuan Jones and Glenn Carson, we've got a young group of guys that are playing - even if they're an older guy like Obeng - they're playing new positions," he said. "So, they're just going to keep getting better.

"They're going to keep getting better as the year goes on if we continue to coach them hard and hold them to high expectations."


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