UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- It's probably too soon to put Penn State coach Bill O'Brien in the College Football Hall of Fame. But we have seen enough of the man's work halfway through this season to know this: He is doing amazing things with the Nittany Lions, who beat No. 24 Northwestern, 39-28, Saturday at Beaver Stadium. He has brought life and energy to a stale program that badly needed it.
When is the last time you heard anyone say Penn State made a bad mistake by not hiring a Penn State man to replace Joe Paterno?
Maybe that's O'Brien's greatest achievement so far.
It really hit home at the end of the game when O'Brien went along the lower bowl of the old stadium and high-fived the Penn State students. He finished in front of a banner that read, "Don't Stop Billieving."
I would say the man has been accepted.
Some are marveling at the way O'Brien kept the Nittany Lions together after Northwestern's Venric Mark returned a punt 75 yards for a touchdown to give the Wildcats a 28-17 lead with :50 left in the third quarter. O'Brien has been doing that sort of thing since Penn State started 0-2 with a bad home loss to Ohio and a worse loss at Virginia. This was its fourth consecutive win, and it could receive votes today in the Associated Press poll.
Others are talking about the belief O'Brien has in his players, especially his offense and quarterback Matt McGloin. Penn State went for it on fourth down six times Saturday and was successful five times. McGloin threw a 6-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Allen Robinson on fourth-and-4 to cut Northwestern's lead to 28-25 with 9:49 left. He then threw for 13 yards to wide receiver Brandon Moseby-Felder on fourth-and-2 from the Northwestern 19 on Penn State's winning touchdown drive.
I'm going to point to the sight of the emotional O'Brien on the field late in the first half, presumably to check on injured cornerback Stephon Morris. One play earlier, Morris was called for a bogus pass-interference penalty, and O'Brien was giving the officials the business. Then, after Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald got involved and asked for a penalty on O'Brien for being on the field, O'Brien had a few gestures and choice words for him, as well.
"No, no, I wasn't yelling at Pat," O'Brien said afterward. "I was yelling at myself. That's all it was. I wasn't yelling at anybody."
That's why many in the crowd of 95,769 stood and roared. They weren't applauding because O'Brien was on the field fighting for his players.
"You can't help but respond to that," McGloin said.
It's no secret O'Brien has a deep fondness for his players. They chose to stay at Penn State after the NCAA came down hard on the program with sanctions after the release of the Freeh Report. "They're smart, they're tough and they're committed to Penn State," O'Brien said. "There's great chemistry in that locker room."
That's why O'Brien wasn't surprised when the Nittany Lions hung tough after the Northwestern punt return. He's not surprised they hung together after the rough start to the season. "There's no quit in that locker room," he said. "I don't know what's going to happen the rest of the year, but there will be no quit in that locker room."
It's easy to say O'Brien has no choice but to be daring on fourth downs because he has no faith in his kicking game after Penn State lost at Virginia, 17-16, because of four missed field goals. But, clearly, he trusts his play-calling and trusts McGloin to execute the plays. He also has no fear of criticism, should his decisions fail. On each of the fourth-down plays mentioned earlier, the situation begged for a field goal, the first to cut Northwestern's lead to 28-20, the second to tie the score, 28-28.
"What do you want me to say? You've got to put it in there. You've got to get the touchdown," O'Brien said.
"You feel good about the rhythm [McGloin is] in. You want to keep it going."
McGloin didn't let his coach down. He completed 8 of 9 passes for 61 yards on the 18-play, 82-yard drive that ended with the Robinson touchdown, then completed 6 of 7 passes for 49 yards on the 15-play, 85-yard drive that ended with McGloin scrambling for a 5-yard touchdown that put Penn State ahead, 32-28, with 2:37 left.
It's not surprising McGloin played well against Northwestern. In 2010, he threw for three of his four touchdown passes in the second half as Penn State fought back to win, 35-21, giving Paterno his 400th coaching win. He also threw two touchdown passes a year ago against Northwestern in a 34-24 victory.
Of course, those wins never happened, at least not according to the NCAA and its sanctions. But this one counted. It added to McGloin's strong start this season: He has completed 61.5 percent of his passes for 12 touchdowns and two interceptions.
O'Brien and quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher have done a fabulous job with McGloin. McGloin is no Tom Brady -- whom O'Brien coached with the New England Patriots -- but he's playing winning football. He didn't get this kind of coaching from the previous Penn State staff.
"Coach Fisher always tells me I've got to play as a fifth-year guy. I've got to play as the experienced guy," McGloin said. "I've got to know what the team needs. I've got to step up and make plays."
McGloin made enough Saturday to draw the ultimate compliment from O'Brien.
"I love coaching competitive guys. He's a competitive guy."
Funny, they're saying the same thing about O'Brien. But he's not just competing. He's doing wondrous things with his Penn State team.