Loss carries big sting for Penn State

Matt McGloin threw for 327 yards against Ohio State, but his third-quarter interception directly cost the Nittany Lions seven points. Rich Barnes/US Presswire

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Bill O'Brien folded his arms after the game and furiously chewed a white piece of gum as the alma mater played.

Some players declined to remove their helmets. Center Matt Stankiewitch didn't even move his lips; backup QB Shane McGregor rested a right hand on his shoulder.

This was a statement game, the game that was supposed to show sanctions couldn't beat these Nittany Lions. That Bill O'Brien couldn't be out-prepared. That Penn State was the best team in the Big Ten.

Instead, Penn State showed it's good, not great. That those first two losses weren't just exceptions -- but were as tied to this team's identity as the five consecutive victories.

Penn State showed Saturday it belongs, right now, with the Wisconsins of the Big Ten -- not the Ohio States.

"I didn't do a very good job tonight as the head football coach," said O'Brien, whose eyes seemed to glimmer beneath the bright lights of the postgame news conference.

O'Brien often smiled before this contest and told the press he wasn't a genie, but a strong fan base still believed in O'Brien as if he were. His squad beat teams with better talent and somehow improved a patchwork offense that lost 10 starters. But Penn State's luck ran out Saturday. It turned into a pumpkin three hours before the clock struck midnight.

Nothing went right for Penn State -- rushing, passing, protecting, penalties, containing Braxton Miller. And the concern now is whether this Week 1 team has returned. Penn State didn't just take one step back Saturday; it seemed to take at least three.

Matt McGloin looked more like the signal-caller who stood on the sideline last season and knew he needed to press to earn playing time. Bill Belton carried the pigskin 10 times for just 26 yards and looked more like the fifth-string backup. The defense just looked tired in the second half.

Throw all that together and this team didn't look like one of the best in the Big Ten. It looked much like Iowa did the week before, and it showed this unstoppable team could be contained.

"It was just one of those nights, I guess," McGloin said.

A loss to Ohio State, in and of itself, doesn't mean Penn State's not a great team. This performance did. Offensive guard John Urschel was short on answers after the game, deflecting what changed and why Penn State put forth its worst effort of the season while a sea of 107,818 fans looked on.

"These are growing pains," Urschel added. "You move forward every week, but every once in a while you have struggles."

Urschel and this offensive line had no answers for the Buckeyes' front seven. When Ohio State brought pressure, McGloin grew flustered and, after Saturday, future opponents likely won't let up with the pass rush. McGloin sometimes threw off his back foot because of that rush, and he seemed surprised by the positioning of some Ohio State defenders.

"He probably shouldn't have been there," McGloin said about linebacker Ryan Shazier, who came away an interception that gave Ohio State a third-quarter lead it never relinquished.

There was enough blame to go around. O'Brien entered Saturday behind cries and speculation for his nod as coach of the year. But, on some plays, it seemed as if the old staff muscled its way into the coaches' box.

On a third-and-long play, O'Brien opted to call a draw. In a battle of field position, O'Brien asked punter Alex Butterworth to attempt a pass on a fake punt. Against a team that struggles defending screens, O'Brien often chose to go deep.

Penn State can't win when it tries something different, something it hasn't had success with this season. PSU needs to stick with the NASCAR and those short, conservative passes. That's the identity of this team, and that's what Penn State showed moving forward.

"It hurts right now," defensive end Deion Barnes said, "but we have to look forward to Purdue."

PSU came into this game with some lingering questions about its team -- and stepped back on those buses with even more. This was likely the closest to the top Penn State could reach for in the next two years -- and it fell short.

With the graduations of McGloin, Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges this season, it's difficult to see Penn State rising to the top again. This was supposed to be a special game, a special season, but a loss like this just leaves the team reeling.

Nearly nothing went right Saturday; there's really nothing to build off here. More than 1,000 fans camped out in front of Gate A for a week to watch this game -- only to see O'Brien yell from the sideline and Penn State's offense fall flat.

Penn State has shown it can bounce back from awful games, but it also showed those terrible performances aren't limited to the early season, either.

"We made mistakes," O'Brien said. "We win as a team and we lose as a team."