Penn State entered last week with an impressive all-time record of 16-0 against the Indiana Hoosiers. Following the loss, head coach Bill O'Brien was quick to shoulder the blame, as always. He gave the usual coach speak about coaching better and preparing the players to play better.
Then he was asked about this year's team, emotionally, compared to the 2012 team. Unprompted, O'Brien brought up the sanctions as a new condition.
"When you look at this football team you have 61 kids on scholarship, 40 walk-ons, can't go to a bowl, can't play for a championship. It's not an excuse..." He later added, "I don't think in any stretch of anybody's imagination is this a 'normal' Penn State team. Sixty-one kids on scholarship and 40 walk-ons..."
While he stated that it wasn't an excuse, it certainly felt like one. In reality, though, O'Brien has a valid point.
In the game against Indiana, O'Brien's defense was on the field for 80 plays. According the the Penn State postgame notes, only 11 players had multiple tackles. Freshman corner Jordan Lucas had nine tackles. Walk-on defensive end Carl Nassib had four.
As Matt de Bear of VictoryBellRings.com wrote,
The lack of depth is well chronicled, but to pretend it does not play a part is foolish. Penn State is relying on just 3 linebackers much of the game. The situation on both lines and the secondary is not much better. This works out to about 80 snaps yesterday for PSU’s best players on defense, and over 90 for PSU’s offense.
Those conditions are far from ideal, and O'Brien realizes it. Penn State is starting three freshmen on defense and has been using a safety at outside linebacker for long stretches. Only two linebackers registered tackles on Saturday. Both played nearly every snap, if not the entire game.
While the argument can be made that the majority of players seeing significant snaps right now were highly recruited prospects, there's no denying a lack of depth behind those players decreases their effectiveness.
The two primary backups at linebacker are freshmen. The defensive line rotation, which Larry Johnson generally likes to run with eight players, has been decreased to six or seven this year, including several freshmen.
Offensively, three of Penn State's top eight pass-catchers are freshmen, and they receive the ball from a freshman quarterback.
Though fluke circumstances made a difference late in the game, Indiana out-scoring Penn State 21-0 to open the fourth quarter certainly points to a Nittany Lions team running on fumes.
If Bill O'Brien has identified depth and talent as a key issue, what can he do to fix it?
As long as guys like Carl Nassib, Brandon Bell and Von Walker are going to be key contributors, this issue of depth isn't going away. The Nittany Lions staff has to work to better prepare these young athletes to perform on Saturdays.
It's possible that they missed an opportunity to get these players more snaps in the out-of-conference schedule. Maybe they can make up for it with extended practice reps.
Whatever the answer is, and whether or not you think the scholarship limitations are a cop-out, O'Brien remains correct in this: He and his staff have to do a better job. A dozen upperclassmen aren't walking into that locker room to pad the depth chart. This team is what it is. There is talent available, but the Penn State coaches have to figure out how to get the most out of it.