Lions eye increase in mental toughness

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- By 10 p.m. Saturday, defensive tackle Jordan Hill was asleep. The game had drained him.

"I was definitely tired," he said.

For him, and, he believes, most of his teammates, the energy level plummeted in the middle of the Ohio game. After watching tape of the game, Hill believes the Nittany Lions must learn how to maintain the proper level for the entire game.

It wasn't only physical exhaustion, though that was part of it. But Hill said the players' minds were not in the right place.

"I think it was both, more mentally than physically," he said. "Mentally, I think we just lost it a little bit. I think that comes with the first game, but you know, it's not a reason why. It's not a reason to lose energy just because it's the first game."

Coach Bill O'Brien countered Hill's opinion at his news conference Tuesday. Like Saturday, he blamed himself for not coaching well enough, then broke down the drop-off in performance as mistakes in execution.

"It was an emotional day, but it came down to turnovers, third-down conversions, and that's what it usually comes down to in close games," he said.

On that same tape, Hill saw that they "weren't going after the ball" on those key third downs. The same thing led to their failure to get turnovers, and, he said they weren't supporting each other as they should have been.

Tight end Kyle Carter had reached the same conclusion Saturday before watching the tape. He considered their lack of energy a problem of youth. Few of Penn State's primary contributors, particularly on offense and in the secondary, had significant game experience.

Carter knew of only one solution.

"Keep playing through," he said.

No more walk-ons

O'Brien realizes that 100 years of college football history disagrees with his new term. He doesn't care. From now on, he is referring to Penn State's walk-ons as "run-ons."

"These guys don't walk, they run on the field, they sprint on the field, they bust their butt on the field," O'Brien said.

It is not the only change.

The scout team is now called the "Dirty Show." It consists of the reserves, some of them "run-ons," who generally pose as the opposing team's defense or offense to better prepare Penn State's starters and main backups.

"Instead of [us] getting yelled at if they make a play against our offense, they celebrate and the coaches congratulate them," fullback Mike Zordich said. "It gives us a small game-type atmosphere and gets everybody else working."

Seeking balance

Though O'Brien tries to take accountability for everything Saturday, there was one thing absolutely left to his discretion: the play-calling.

Penn State threw the ball 48 times against Ohio and ran the ball 22 times, although the Nittany Lions gained just more than 4 yards per carry. O'Brien said the team needed to be more balanced.

"We can run the football," he said. "We've got a tough offensive line that -- I think probably one of the units that played the best on Saturday was our offensive line, if not the unit that did play the best. You know, we've got to be more balanced, and that starts with me."

The running game at Virginia Saturday could be without its featured player, Bill Belton.

Along with cornerback Stephon Morris, Belton injured an ankle and is considered day to day.

O'Brien said he would know by Thursday if the two would play against Virginia. He said senior Derek Day would be the starting running back if Belton were out.

psusports

Mark Dent: mdent@post-gazette.com and Twitter @mdent05.


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