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O'Brien wants offensive balance, but PSU needs reliable RB for that
September 4, 2012 - Cory Giger
It was a clear indication that Penn State football has changed drastically: 48 passes to only 22 runs.
That was the offensive ratio in Saturday's 24-14 loss to Ohio, and it was an even bigger differential than just about anyone would have predicted in Bill O'Brien's first game. That includes O'Brien himself.
"We've got to be more balanced, and that starts with me," said the coach, who also calls the plays on offense.
The Nittany Lions held a 14-3 halftime lead, but instead of shortening up the game, they ran the ball only nine times in the second half.
O'Brien is used to throwing the ball a lot, since that's what he did with the Patriots and Tom Brady. That may be too simplistic of an explanation for his predilection to pass that many times Saturday, but then again, coaches are creatures of habit.
The passing attack worked early as Matt McGloin was 16-of-26 for 178 yards and two TDs in the first half. But the second half was a different story as McGloin was just 11-of-22 for 82 yards and an interception.
"We can run the football," said O'Brien, whose squad averaged 4.5 yards per carry. "We've got a tough offensive line that -- I think probably one of the units that played the best on Saturday was our offensive line, if not the unit that did play the best. ... Hindsight being 20/20, I'd like to say we would not throw it 50 and run it 20. We'd like to be more balanced."
O'Brien will need faith in his ground game to call more running plays, and as of Tuesday, starting tailback Bill Belton's status for Saturday was unknown. Belton suffered an ankle injury against Ohio, and while O'Brien said the running back is probable, he won't know until Thursday's practice.
If Belton can't go, backup Derek Day will start.
"We've got good depth at running back," O'Brien said. "Billy, obviously the ankle injury, you never like to lose a player like Billy. We think he's a really good player. But if he can't go, we've got plenty of guys there that can go."
There are several tailback candidates, to be sure, but all are unproven. Day, a senior, has carried just 15 times for 63 yards in his career, and eight of those carries came Saturday. Behind him, there's true freshman Akeel Lynch (zero career carries), redshirt sophomore Zach Zwinak (three carries for seven yards) and junior Curtis Dukes, who has the most experience.
Dukes looked good for a stretch last season and carried 41 times for 237 yards, but he fell out of favor with the coaching staff, dropped way down the depth chart and hasn't been a factor since.
Lynch has impressed the coaches, although O'Brien still isn't sure if he wants to burn the talented tailback's redshirt.
"If you're going to play those guys, then you'd better actually play them," the coach said of the true freshmen. "So we're going to see how practice goes this week with Akeel, and we'll make a decision on that later in the week. ... But he's definitely a guy that we think has a good future here at Penn State."
SUBHD: Hostile crowd?
Will Virginia's fans yell mean-spirited comments about the Sandusky scandal at the PSU players? That will be a question Saturday and everywhere the Lions go this season.
"You're going to have fans everywhere that love you and hate you, and you have to deal with it and take it as it comes," safety Malcolm Willis said.
Defensive tackle Jordan Hill noted the team isn't concerned about the fan reaction and added, "When we're hated by a team it gets us going and [makes us] want to play the opponent more."
O'Brien knows how difficult it is to play at Virginia's Scott Stadium, having been there several times previously as an assistant coach.
"It's a very loud home crowd," O'Brien said. "It's a great home advantage for Virginia, and we've got to do a great job this week of practicing with the crowd noise because that's the biggest thing, not what they're yelling but how loud they are."
SUBHD: Big underdogs
Virginia opened as an 8 1/2-point favorite, but the line already has jumped up to 10.
"Underdog pretty much means nothing to us anymore," fullback Michael Zordich said. "We've been underdogs for a while now."
Tight end Kyle Carter showed respect for the Cavaliers by saying, "We know Virginia is a better team than Ohio was, so we need to make a marked improvement."
SUBHD: Morris probable
Cornerback Stephon Morris believes he will be able to return Saturday after injuring an ankle against Ohio.
"Treatment from sun up to sun down. Will be back saturday!!" Morris tweeted Tuesday.
Like with Belton, O'Brien said Morris is probable but won't know for sure until Thursday.
"He's doing well," Willis said of his fellow defensive back. "He was limited [Monday] in practice, but he's getting a lot better."
SUBHD: One QB system
O'Brien was asked if backup quarterback Paul Jones would get an opportunity to play Saturday.
"Paul has made a lot of improvement, but right now we're going to stick with one guy [McGloin]," the coach said.