Long season wears on thin Penn State

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Offensive guard John Urschel doesn’t feel the same way he did in August. He said his body is more tired, riddled with bumps and bruises and minor but lingering injuries. It happens to everybody on the team.

“Once you get about halfway through the season or the back half of the season, your body gets beat up,” Urschel said.

Penn State’s final three games pose the traditional challenges: the need to finish strong, the chance to win eight games again, etc. They also will test how well Penn State can push through exhaustion. And unlike most every other major college football team, the Nittany Lions lack a standard-sized roster because of NCAA sanctions, meaning the aches and pains have been multiplied because many players are carrying larger loads than they usually would.

Penn State coach Bill O’Brien knew his team would face greater difficulties with energy levels at the end of the year. At the beginning of the season his roster had around 67 scholarship players. He decided he needed to conserve his resources.

So, early practices for the first-teamers consisted of about 50 to 60 repetitions, and then the younger players would take over. Whereas in the past he might have finished those practices with sprints, he had enough faith in his team’s conditioning that he chose to have them work on their upper bodies instead.

O’Brien went a step further for some of his veterans. Players such as Urschel, defensive tackle DaQuan Jones, linebacker Glenn Carson and others were at times given a few extra reps off, and some players were even held out of practice if O’Brien believed it would benefit them in the long run.

“The way that we’ve practiced I think has been good,” O’Brien said. “I think that’s another offseason study that I would have to do to give you a better, more specific answer. I do see a lot of juice still with DaQuan Jones or John Urschel. I see these guys that have played a ton of snaps for us, and there are other guys with a lot of energy.”

The remaining days of practice will be adjusted to accommodate the needs of a tired team. O’Brien said they would stop practices earlier and practice at a faster pace. Individual players are doing what they can to stay sharp as well. During this time of year, the hot and cold bath tubs are common treatment.

Cornerback Jordan Lucas said he uses them every day. The ice and warmth take care of his legs. For the rest, he works on staying focused mentally and not letting the fatigue become a distraction.

“You can get through a lot of things mentally,” Lucas said. “That’s exactly what it is. Of course you’re not the same as you were coming into the season, but that’s a part of the game.”

Urschel said the last few weeks of the season were tougher on him when he was younger. Back then, he hadn’t developed the same type of mentality he has now.

He doesn’t worry about the final stretch of the season bothering freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg, though. Urschel said Hackenberg is “a different breed of guy.”

How everything will play out the rest of this season is unknown, particularly given Penn State’s inconsistencies throughout the year. But at least the team is feeling fresh.

“It’s a grind; it’s a long season,” Hackenberg said. “We’re really focused on Purdue and getting these last three games.”

Mark Dent: mdent@post-gazette.com, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05.

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