Penn State is in a funk, and so is coach Bill O’Brien.
The second-year coach was in no mood Tuesday to break down the loss at Indiana last Saturday. Or talk about how lost scholarships impact the program and how sanctions have hurt the Nittany Lions. And don’t ask why the Nittany Lions haven’t developed a No. 2 receiver.
Still smarting over losing to the Hoosiers, O’Brien wanted to keep the focus on Penn State’s game Saturday against No. 18 Michigan.
“I’m here to talk about Michigan,” O’Brien said, “and Michigan only.”
O’Brien has good reason to run from the past. The Nittany Lions (3-2, 0-1 Big Ten) are coming off a 44-24 loss to Indiana, ending a 16-game winning streak against what had been one of the conference’s worst programs.
Quarterback Christian Hackenberg was 30 of 55 for 340 yards with three touchdowns. And Allen Robinson finished with 12 receptions for 173 yards and two scores.
But it wasn’t nearly enough, as Penn State lost for the second time in three games.
Admired for their resiliency last season, and lauded for a solid start this season, perhaps the numbers game has smacked the Nittany Lions into cold reality.
A thin lineup – laced with underclassmen – could mean tough times are still ahead.
“I don’t think, by anybody’s stretch of the imagination, this is a normal Penn State team,” O’Brien said after Saturday’s loss. “It’s 61 kids on scholarship and 40 walk-ons.”
Asked about the limited scholarships on Tuesday, and how Penn State is working with the odds stacked against it, O’Brien refused to bite.
“I’m not talking about scholarships, sanctions, anything,” he said. “I’m talking about Michigan. Our team is focused on Michigan.”
With good reason. The Wolverines (5-0, 1-0) have survived scares against Akron and Connecticut en route toward an undefeated start that has them thinking about a Big Ten title. Michigan is a 3-point favorite and can move a step closer toward its goal of its first league title since 2004 with a win.
The Wolverines hold a 10-6 lead in the series and have won the last three meetings, including a 41-31 win at Beaver Stadium in 2010.
O’Brien said his team is up for the challenge to play a ranked team in front of 100,000-plus fans at Beaver Stadium.
“The team’s confidence isn’t shaken,” he said.
Maybe the Nittany Lions can pull off an upset if Hackenberg finds another reliable target outside of Robinson, who has 38 catches for 621 yards and five touchdowns.
But no other receiver has more than 16 receptions (Brandon Felder) or 147 yards (Kyle Carter) on the season. Robinson’s catch total vs. IU ranked second in single-game school history, and his yardage was eighth best.
But where’s the help?
“There’s very few plays where we say, this ball is going to Allen no matter what,” O’Brien said. “It’s the read of the play. You know, offensively we’re always looking to improve, but I think for the most part, we’ve been a productive offense, and we just need to continue to try to move the ball.”
Other than that, O’Brien illustrated very little else during his weekly call. It was clear where his focus is – and will be the rest of the week:
Some other responses from a Tuesday in State College:
• Can the Nittany Lions learn from their latest loss?
“We’ve moved on from Indiana. We’re focused on Michigan.”
• Can this team overcome the odds like they did last season?
“I just think that we have a fantastic group of kids that are practicing hard right now and very focused on the Michigan game.”
• Will the Nittany Lions run more after such little production against Indiana?
“That game is over. We’re focused on Michigan.”
• How long does it take for Penn State to recover from a loss?
“It’s one loss. It’s over. We’re moving on to Michigan.”
• Does Penn State have an identity after five games?
“We’re going to play hard, and we’ve got a lot of good players, and we’re very focused on doing that against Michigan.”
Michigan it is.