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Lions a fun, refreshing team to watch because of coaching, revamped offense

September 30, 2012 - Cory Giger
This is a fun Penn State football team to watch, and certainly a very different kind of team than we've seen in a long time.

It may not be a great Nittany Lion team, but through five games it's clear this is a team that:

* Is very well-coached. Bill O'Brien and his staff are getting the most out of the kids on the squad, and the first-year head coach -- while still making a few debatable in-game decisions here and there -- has energized the program with fire and passion that 20-something-year-old kids can relate to and will run through a brick wall for.

It's also such a breath of fresh air to have a full stable of assistant coaches who can bring fresh, creative, aggressive approaches.

From the head coach down, this team is playing to win, rather than always taking the conservative approach, regardless of the level of competition.

Just look at the job O'Brien and quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher have done with Matt McGloin. And Mac McWhorter has done with the offensive line. And Stan Hixon has done with the receivers.

Coached up is all that needs to be said.

* Has an innovative, complex, ever-evolving offense that could be dynamite if O'Brien can ever get all the right personnel into the program.

Maybe some Penn State fans are getting tired of the comparisons to the New England Patriots, but they are apparent and important. Take Saturday, for instance, when tight end Kyle Carter twice lined up at fullback before rolling into the pass pattern for two big catches, one that led to a touchdown and 14-0 lead. That's exactly what the Patriots do with star tight end Aaron Hernandez.

Carter has 19 catches already, and the tight ends have combined for 31 so far. I believe the continued emergence of the tight end will be a huge part of football in the next 20 years because their size and speed make them very difficult to cover and they provide the quarterback with a quick, short, safe option in the passing game.

O'Brien knows how to use the tight ends from his Patriots days, plus he has an effective passing offense led by a receiving corps that had virtually no experience entering the season and by a quarterback in McGloin who looks very well suited for the system.

The top running backs have been banged up all season, but they're healthy now, and Saturday the third-string guy, Zach Zwinak, ran for 100 yards. If the backs can stay healthy, the entire offense should only get better as it gets more comfortable with O'Brien's scheme, which looks downright visionary compared to the past few years.

* Has a defense that keeps getting better and better. Ted Roof got off to a bad start as his defense got shredded on third downs in the losses to Ohio and Virginia, but Roof has made the proper adjustments, implemented his press coverage, blitzed more and relied on the great leadership of linebacker Michael Mauti and others.

This week will be a major challenge for the defense as Northwestern has a quirky, efficient offense that almost certainly will move the ball and put up points. It will be very interesting to see what Roof tries to do to stop it, such as jamming receivers at the line of scrimmage, something PSU cornerbacks rarely did until this year.

* Will take a lot of chances. Going for it so frequently on fourth down is more out of necessity than it is O'Brien just loves to gamble. The place-kicking problems mean points are never guaranteed no matter how deep the Lions drive, so O'Brien always has to be thinking about letting his offense stay on the field.

That, as much as anything else the team does, is really fun and fascinating to watch.

SUBHD: Afterthoughts ...

* This week's homecoming opponent, Northwestern, is ranked No. 22 in the coaches poll and No. 24 in the AP poll. The Wildcats are 5-0 and averaging 34 points per game. Since I love offense, this week could end up being the most entertaining game of the season. I'll take PSU in a shootout, 34-30.

* Penn State opened up as a 3 1/2-point favorite. I made my prediction above before seeing the number, by the way, and it's always neat to have your estimate somewhere close to the Vegas line.

* Congratulations to Central Cambria product Shane McGregor on earning a scholarship for his senior season, and good luck to him as he's up for homecoming king. You won't meet many better young men than him.

* I'll agree with seemingly the majority of Illinois fans and say that coach Tim Beckman, who was all of 21-16 in three years at Toledo, is in over his head with the Illini job. It's hard to make Ron Zook look like a good coach, but Beckman has needed all of five games to do that.

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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