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Confidence, focus will be key for Lions after this loss and others to come

September 2, 2012 - Cory Giger
There's no shame in losing to a good Ohio team that very well could go 12-0.

There also won't be any shame if Penn State loses this week on the road against a solid Virginia squad, which many people expect to happen.

If that does happen, it will be gut-check time for the Nittany Lions, and they'll need coach Bill O'Brien and their team leaders to keep everyone together so the season doesn't start to unravel.

We have to remember that many of the key players on this team are 19 and 20 years old, and for young adults, they've done a tremendous job controlling their emotions and remaining positive and focused throughout the entire scandal.

That gets much tougher to do when you start losing -- for any team in any sport.

A victory this week would give the Lions a huge boost going into winnable non-conference games against Navy and Temple.

But even with a loss at Virginia, PSU still would have time to regroup with two non-con wins and take some confidence into the Big Ten opener at Illinois.

Teams that rely heavily on emotion can do big things, overcome adversity and play better than expected. Those are still possibilities for Penn State.

The trouble with relying so heavily on emotion is that there can be a mental crash if things start going poorly.

One loss shouldn't cause such a crash for the Lions. Whether two or three or four will do that remains to be seen.

There's no bowl game or conference title to play for. So with each loss, some players on the team could start thinking about transferring after the season. Some of the better upperclassmen could start concentrating more on their NFL aspirations.

All of those things can cause players to lose focus in the here and now, and that will be a concern as the season goes on.

Emotion aside, football comes down to talent. If Penn State can keep all of its starters and the key backups healthy all season, then this could be a good year.

But that almost never happens in football, and we've already seen in one game how losing some key players to injuries will make it very tough for the Lions to win because they have depth concerns in numerous areas.

Running back Bill Belton (ankle) and cornerback Stephon Morris (ankle) are both questionable for this week's game. Linebacker Gerald Hodges (shin) wasn't on the field when Ohio was taking the lead Saturday. Offensive left tackle Donovan Smith missed time in the second half when both hamstrings cramped. And defensive tackle Jordan Hill felt his knee buckle at one point, although he said he was OK and returned to action.

Those guys are team leaders. When players like that go down with injuries, it not only forces inexperienced players into action, it also impacts everyone's confidence in the team.

You can bet some of that confidence is shaken given Saturday's 24-14 loss, especially on the defensive side after the Bobcats shredded PSU for 499 yards.

The challenge for O'Brien and the team leaders this week will be to make sure the squad's confidence and concentration remain high. And win or lose at Virginia, that will continue to be a focal point all season.

SUBHD: Afterthoughts ...

* It's tough to figure out O'Brien's decision to have Hodges return kickoffs and punts. Maybe he is the best all-around player on the team, but he's way too valuable on defense to risk anything happening to him in the return game.

Return men are usually receivers and defensive backs, who spend a lot of time catching the ball, plus they're primarily speedburners. Hodges doesn't seem to fit the mold. How many linebackers do? Watching Hodges fumble one punt that led to a field goal was bad, but seeing him on the sideline nursing an injury when the Bobcats' offense started to take over was even worse. Whether the injury stemmed from anything he did returning kicks is unknown. Still, watching the defense struggle while Hodges was banged up reinforced the notion that it's unwise to gamble putting him in position to get hurt doing something he's not used to doing.

* Love the decision to go for it but don't like the play call on fourth-and-5 from the Ohio 30 when PSU had a 14-10 lead midway through the third quarter. Matt McGloin had enjoyed success with underneath throws up to that point, but after a timeout, the call was to try and hit Allen Robinson down the right sideline near the end zone.

Something short, to Robinson or a tight end, would have provided a better chance for success and to sustain a drive that could have extended the lead back to seven or even 11. Instead, the drive stalled, the Lions lost more momentum and Ohio marched right down the field for a go-ahead touchdown.

* Give credit to Ohio for making good adjustments in pass coverage. McGloin was 16-of-26 for 178 yards and two TDs in the first half but only 11-of-22 for 82 yards with one interception in the second.

Robinson had six catches for 74 yards in the first half but just three for 23 yards in the second.

* Congratulations to Ohio's Blair County foursome on the biggest win of their careers: Altoona LB Alphonso Lewis (four tackles, fumble recovery), WR Tyler Futrell (two catches for 20 yards) and DT Neal Huynh (one pass breakup); and Hollidaysburg OL Ryan McGrath (part of a line that blocked well all day).

* Virginia is coming off a 43-19 thumping of Richmond in its opener. The Cavaliers went 8-5 last season and are led by quarterback Michael Rocco, who was 25-of-37 for 311 yards and one TD in the win.

Rocco has deep Penn State ties. His father, Frank Jr., was a backup quarterback on PSU's 1982 national title team, and his grandfather, Frank Sr., served as an assistant under Joe Paterno.

* Penn State is an 8 1/2-point underdog against Virginia, according to the initial line released Sunday.

Cory Giger is the host of "Sports Central" from 4 to 6 p.m. daily on ESPN Radio 1430 WVAM. Reach him at 949-7031 or @CoryGiger on Twitter.

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