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November 11, 2013
by Chris Adamski


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Penn State football versus… the world?

After his team fell to under .500 in the Big Ten and remained winless on the road this season with its loss at Minnesota Saturday, Penn State coach Bill O’Brien was in his customarily, shall we say, less-than-completely-jovial post-defeat mood.

 

His postgame press conference lasted less than eight minutes, and he did not allow any of his players to speak with the media – a first in his tenure (those who have covered the program over the longterm said this happened periodically under late coach Joe Paterno). O’Brien even said he didn’t care what other people think: “I just care about our staff and our team and my family.”

 

Earlier in his postgame comments, O’Brien went somewhat off-topic in answering a question about the weather conditions to offer – partial – insight into what his postgame speech to his players was:

 

“In the locker room right now I told them, ‘No. 1, we’re going to coach them better. I said, “We’re going to make sure that we put you guys in a better position to make plays.’

 

“No. 2, we’re going to make sure we do everything we can as a coaching staff to make sure we help these seniors go out as winners, because this senior class means a lot to me.

 

“And No. 3, I’m not going to tell you what I said as No. 3.”

 

This is all speculation, of course, but here is my theory on what O’Brien’s third message to his players perhaps could have been: Everyone is against you. Now that you’ve lost a few games, the media and fans have turned on you. Let’s show them what we’re made of and what we’ve got in us.

 

(disperse a “bunch of fighters“or two in there)

 

Again, that is totally a guess, but here is my reasoning: First, O’Brien kept the players from the media, allowing an opportunity to frame the message to them himself. Second, check out some of these tweets from players in the hours after the game Saturday:

 

 

“It’s ironic how the same people that will pat you on your back will be the same ones that kick you when your down”

RB Bill Belton

 

“Ignore the noise”

TE Adam Breneman

 

“Brutus killed Caesar & Judas killed Jesus, (what the heck) is LOYALTY? #TrustNone

–CB Da’Quan Davis (I can’t post the link because it carries a reference to an abbreviation for a bad word, but here’s his profile page)

 

 

Interestingly, even the athletic department’s official website uses the “L” word in an attempt to get fans to buy tickets. (If you view on mobile or have already been to the site today, the ad might not pop up, but here it is).

 

The “us against the world” rallying cry is arguably the most used in sports. It can be effective, too. Maybe I’m way off with this, and maybe these players have some other reason to be publicly pondering “noise” from the outside, “loyalty” and how they might feel turned-against. Perhaps a couple fans yelled negative things as they left the TCF Bank Stadium field Saturday. Maybe anonymous Twitter followers sent nasty messages at them. Maybe even those tweets had nothing to do with fans or media and I am just connecting too many unrelated dots here.

 

Just a theory.

 

Luckily for Penn State, next on the schedule is a Purdue team that might be one of the worst squads in the more than century of history of the Big Ten. Could make for a nice Saturday of reconciliation between 90,000-plus fans and their beloved team at Beaver Stadium.

 

 

 

Meanwhile, my story from postgame about the lack of production from wide receivers not named Allen Robinson.

 

Cut out of the story for space reasons were the recent (troubling) stats from the Nittany Lions’ “other” wide receivers:

 

Brandon Felder, the most experienced of Penn State’s “other” wide receivers, has just 15 catches in his past five games.

 

Matt Zanellato’s reception at Minnesota was only his second since having two Aug. 31.

 

Geno Lewis has been held without a catch in five of the Lions’ nine games.

November 1, 2013
by Chris Adamski


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Illinois coaches back in State College – this time for a game and not to recruit from PSU’s roster

Many times – though admittedly not all the time – rivalries in sports are more for the fans than for the players and coaches directly involved. Often, any perceived bad blood between two teams is more media- or fan-driven than anything those directly associated with the organization or program is overly concerned with. Part of what makes sports so great is that fans hate rival teams.

 

Usually, though, a “rivalry” is somewhat contrived. Media spent a lot of time asking Penn State players about their “rivalry” with Ohio State last week. You could tell that, other than the Buckeyes generally being considered the class of the Big Ten over the past decade, there was no extra “oomph” of animosity for the team (whether that changed after a 63-14 loss in which OSU coach Urban Meyer challenged a second-half spot – that might be a different story).

 

However… you get the impression that the sore feelings the Penn State community has for Illinois and Illini head coach Tim Beckman remain raw more than 15 months after the Illini’s coaching staff showed little shame in showing up at University Park to recruit Nittany Lions players in the wake of the oppressive NCAA sanctions levied.

 

The actions were perfectly legal – but they touched a nerve with many associated with Penn State. Call it gentleman’s agreement, a nod to the seriousness of the situation or just pure politeness, most teams’ coaches preferred not to engage in staking out at Penn State.

 

In the end, only redshirt freshman offensive lineman Ryan Nowicki couldn’t resist Beckman’s overtures. He never played for Illinois, though, and has since transferred to Northern Arizona of the Football Championship Subdivision. No harm, no foul, right?

 

Not so fast. O’Brien didn’t have the warmest of exchanges with Beckman following the Lions’ 35-7 win in Champagne last season. And although it seemed apparent that O’Brien instituted a gag order on talking about the Illinois recruit-gate, it wasn’t difficult to read between the lines that Penn State thoroughly enjoyed that particular win.

 

A year later, do the hard feelings still linger? It’s my impression that absolutely, they do. Again, players generally were delicate in talked around the issue – likely at the behesting of (re: under orders from) O’Brien. But, don’t kid yourselves, they remember. You can tell by their answers that they remember.

 

 

OT Garry Gilliam: “It happened, and we know it happened. I guess if certain players want to use that as fuel, so be it. Other than that, I can’t relay comment on it.”

 

LB Mike Hull: “We’ll definitely remember the situation and stuff, but now that we’re further removed now, we’re really not trying to focus on that. We’re focused on ourselves and getting better and taking care of things we can do better. We’ll just take care of ourselves so we will be good and not so much worry about what happened in the past.”

 

 

Interestingly, I reached out to a couple former Penn State players who exhausted their eligibility after last season. I figured that since they were no longer on the team, they might be more open to discuss their feelings for Illinois after what happened, but neither wanted to go on the record about the situation.

 

That leaves O’Brien and Beckman, each of whom, for different reasons, was loathe to discuss the on-campus recruiting of more than a year ago in the ramp up to their meeting this Saturday. The closest either got to doing so was via their responses to a reporter who asked each during the Big Ten’s weekly coaches’ teleconference about the postgame handshake tradition. I have no idea if this was this particular reporter’s way of sleuthing some sort of response out of either or it was just some coincidence (maybe he’s actually doing a story on the coaches’ handshake practice).

 

Regardless, here their answers, respectively, first to a general question about the tradition and then a follow-up about if it can be difficult to go through with the handshake after a tough loss or some other trying circumstance:

 

 

Beckman

“I think we have great relationships in the Big Ten with our coaches. It is a tradition game that we play and game that we coach, and there is a – to me, being around this game, as I mentioned, my whole life – it’s important to show sportsmanship, to show those things that really matter, for the football players. I would say it’s very important and something I wall always take as one of those things in coaching that’s very important.”

 

“Sure it can, but I think that it’s our responsibility to teach our student athletes sportsmanship, and that’s part of being a sportsman. Nobody likes to lose by any means, but it’s not something that I think that should be taken for granted. I guess it’s part of the game and it’s a part of the game that should be kept as tradition.”

 

 

O’Brien

“I think it’s important to go across the field and say, ‘Good game,’ to the opposing coach.”

 

“I don’t find it very tough at all, no. With all due respect to your question, we’re talking about a lot of nothing right here.”

 

 

Again, I’ll leave it to you to interpret what you will from their answers.

 

One final note, one that I concede perhaps is me over-analyzing or simply reading too much into things. So please, by all means, take it with the proverbial grain of salt.

 

Of course, in the week leading up to every game, every coach is invariably asked for a general assessment of the opponent. The coach then proceeds to list all the great things about the opposing team, pretty much making them sound like the best team in the history of the world. You know the drill.

 

Take, for example, the press conferences leading up to each of the past three Penn State games: O’Brien, in carrying out his soliloquies on Michigan and Ohio State, dropped in a “they’re well-coached” for both.

 

There was no such phrase uttered by O’Brien this week.

 

Maybe it was just a casual, unintentional omission?

 

 

November 1, 2013
by Chris Adamski


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Bill O’Brien loves Pittsburgh … among other places

One very small aspect of a coach’s job description is to talk up his own players. It’s one part PR, one tiny part recruiting tactic, one part an honest assessment of a player’s abilities and one part a nod to the (in most cases) positive personal relationship that coach has with the individuals he oversees.

 

Penn State’s Bill O’Brien, of course, is no different. In fact, he seems to have a true affinity for many of his Nittany Lions – with good reason, as all of the current players stuck with him and with the program through some, shall we say, trying times.

 

One pattern I noticed in listening to O’Brien over the course of this season: Almost without exception, any time he is asked about a player from Western Pennsylvania – virtually regardless of context – he’ll mention some variation of “he’s a Pittsburgh kid, a tough kid.”

 

Earlier this week, I asked O’Brien if he was just paying lip service and being polite – or if he truly had grown to carry a certain respect for Pittsburghers at some point over the course of his life and/or career. Here was his answer:

 

 

“That’s an interesting question.  First, I don’t want to imply that Philadelphia guys aren’t‑‑ I think Pennsylvania kids are tough, let’s say that.

 

Just in my experience of coaching in the National Football League with New England, just the Pittsburgh Steelers were always just a very tough football team that we played, obviously.  Growing up, I followed the Steelers.  When I was growing up, the Patriots weren’t very good, and Pittsburgh Steelers were unbelievable in the ’70s.  So there was the ‘Steel Town’ toughness of that town.  And then coming here and having the honor of being the head football coach at Penn State and with State College being so close to Pittsburgh, I just really like that city, and I like the guys on our team that come from that city.  And I think those guys that you just mentioned are very tough guys that love playing for Penn State.

 

I just think overall, whether it’s Pittsburgh, Philly, Central Pennsylvania, I just really like to‑‑ like I said, from day one, the bulk of our roster, I’d like to come from those areas.”

 

 

So there you have it: Bill O’Brien loves Pittsburgh… but he loves all of Pennsylvania.

 

Hey, if you want to interpret it that he added in the “Philly” part in out of obligation and merely out of an effort to avoid offending those from the eastern side of the state, by all means, I won’t argue with you.

October 16, 2013
by Chris Adamski


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Miles Diffenbach’s touching gesture

A local product from Fox Chapel Area High School, offensive guard Miles Dieffenbach is one of the most likeable players on the Penn State roster. We’ve written about his ability to be a character in the Nittany Lions’ locker room and practice field. But how about Dieffenbach’s true character?

 

Former Pitt assistant Bryan Deal was Dieffenbach’s coach at Fox Chapel. Now the golf coach and a teacher at the school, Deal relayed to the Trib’s Kevin Gorman about something very kind that Dieffenbach did for Deal’s family.

 

Deal’s stepson, Kyle Johnson, tragically died at 23 while running the Pittsburgh Half Marathon in May.

 

Johnson, a North Allegheny graduate who was a lineman on the 2007 Tigers’ team that finished the regular season undefeated, graduated from Penn State in 2012. Active in the university community via the Lion Ambassadors and THON, Johnson was a friend of Dieffenbach’s. Even after Johnson graduated, he would accompany Deal and his family on visits to Penn State, going out to dinner with Dieffenbach.

 

“Miles has a big heart and knew how devastated we were regarding Kyle’s sudden passing, as you can imagine,” Deal wrote in an email.

 

Dieffenbach wears No. 65, the same number Johnson did in high school. As a tribute to Johnson’s family, Dieffenbach provided them four tickets and field passes to the Lions’ game against Central Florida on Sept. 14. Afterward, he presented a No. 65 “K. JOHNSON” jersey signed by the entire Penn State team to Kyle’s mother MaryBeth, Deal and Kyle’s younger bother Seth Johnson. MaryBeth is a Penn State alum, and Seth Johnson is a junior at Penn State.

 

No. 65 signed jersey

From left to right: Seth Johnson, MaryBeth Deal, Miles Dieffenbach, Bryan Deal — the brother, mother, friend and stepfather of the late Kyle Johnson

 

“It was a very moving gesture on behalf of Miles, the team, and the staff,” Deal said

 

“The picture tells it all. Miles is a kind, compassionate, caring person.  He came to the funeral home as well as the funeral.  He knew how much PSU was a part of Kyle, Seth, and MaryBeth’s life… Needless to say it was very moving and a wonderful gesture on Miles and the PSU football family.

 

“It just proved what a special person he is both on and off the field.”

 

Dieffenbach and Kyle Johnson got to know each other through the recruiting process. Dieffenbach said presenting his family – Penn State fans, all – with a jersey was the least he could do.

 

“That was something I really wanted to do,” Dieffenbach said. “I was pretty close with Kyle; we were friends, just when I heard, it was such a tragic incident. I just felt like there was something I could do to help that family out. He wore No. 65 in high school so I thought that was pretty cool so we got his name on back and got team to sign it got sign it and got them to the game. It was a really special moment for that family and I wish the best for them.”

 

Among his teammates, Dieffenbach is one of the most popular players on the Penn State team. Usually, it’s for his lighthearted, joking manner. He’s certainly just as respected for his class.

 

“Every good team that I’ve been around has a guy like Miles Dieffenbach,” Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said. “He’s a good player, he’s a good student, and he’s a very, very good guy.”

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