Only once did Bill O’Brien’s emotions begin to flow fast during his first weekly press conference since the historic loss to Ohio State.
Mostly, he was calm and even less evasive than usual while answering questions today, well-prepared to deal with the blowback from losing by 49 points.
He rode things smoothly until the subject matter focused on good friend and defensive coordinator John Butler — and any perceived criticism and “heat” he is taking for an awful October of defense like no other.
It was one thing to ask O’Brien to evaluate his defense, as a whole, in light of yielding a school-record 686 total yards and giving up 40 or more points for the third-straight game.
“Defensively, I think what we have to do is … simplify things so that these guys can go out and play,” O’Brien said. “I think any time you give up yardage like that and points like that, there are some communication issues. … But the number one deal is we’ve got to coach better.”
In particular, one defensive problem is that “we’re a little soft in coverage,” O’Brien said. “We need to be more aggressive in coverage like, ‘Don’t be afraid to go make a mistake. Go take your shot.’”
Things were fine for the second-year head coach until subject matter turned to Butler, who was the Nittany Lions’ defensive backs coach last season. He was promoted to coordinator after Ted Roof left last winter.
The Lions are now ranked ninth in the Big Ten in scoring defense, giving up 29.3 points per game. They are seventh in total defense, yielding 386 yards per game.
“Now, as far as John Butler taking heat, I don’t know from who, but John Butler is a hell of a football coach,” O’Brien said, his self-admitted Irish temperature rising.
“John Butler is our defensive coordinator, works his tail off, the kids respect him. He’s doing a hell of a job. I don’t care what the scoreboard says or what the yardage says. This guy is our defensive coordinator. He’s my defensive coordinator. I’m proud to coach with him.”
O’Brien paused but felt like he needed to hammer his point home harder.
“Look, at the end of the day, it wasn’t a great team effort. We didn’t do anything on offense to help the defense either. We scored 14 points, got down 21 0, and we couldn’t even score a touchdown. So it’s a team effort. If anybody should take heat, it’s Bill O’Brien, not John Butler. I don’t know where that’s coming from, but hopefully that will get squelched.
“That’s a bunch of crap that he’s taking heat.”
O’Brien, who also is Penn State’s offensive coordinator, said he is in constant communication with Butler about defensive strategy and changes, “every single day, seven days a week, two or three times a day, and we’re in constant communication during the game.”
Of course, regardless of Butler, the Lions do have personnel issues on defense.
Senior Glenn Carson is the only key linebacker to have played the season at or near complete health. Mike Hull (leg) and Nyeem Wartman (shoulder) have played through various levels of injury. Dallastown’s Ben Kline (shoulder) has watched more than he’s played.
Improving safety Ryan Keiser also has been shelved with a broken hand and now star defensive tackle DaQuan Jones is gutting it out through shoulder and back issues, O’Brien said.
All of that takes on a different meaning with a reduced-scholarship roster.
And with a hot-and-cold offense. The Lions started promisingly enough on offense last Saturday night before their first drive was stopped by an end zone interception.
By the time they did score, the game was out of hand.
“Well, (that) falls upon me. I call the plays,” O’Brien said. “And certainly, you go into a game like that and you’re playing an offense … that scores a lot of points, you’ve got to score points. So I look in the mirror.
“Certainly, some of the players could have played better … But that starts with me, and the whole game starts with me as the head football coach. Nobody understands that better than me.”
The Lions now move on to Illinois and the final five games of their schedule.
It just won’t be easy to forget Ohio State, the method of losing even more than the loss itself. The Buckeyes are the only team Penn State has played every year since joining the Big Ten.
They are a measuring stick.
“At the end of the day, in order to have a rivalry, you have to win, and so we’ve lost two years in a row to them,” O’Brien said. “I think they have one rival, Michigan, and that’s the way it goes.”