Opener a chance to extend 2012 success

Other than Alabama, which won the national championship, few teams ended the 2012 season with as much momentum and euphoria than Penn State.

Rewind the tape to Nov. 24 at Beaver Stadium to the overtime win over Wisconsin – the Nittany Lions’ eighth win in 10 games and their Senior Day sendoff.

Since then, Bill O’Brien was named the national coach of the year by multiple outlets and Penn State, despite being restricted by severe NCAA sanctions, has recruited at a higher level than it has in years and remains squarely in the national spotlight.

Witness the ESPN’s “Training Days” feature, a 60-minute virtual commercial which captured all of the good the program has to offer.

To build on that, O’Brien is now expected to unveil the nation’s top prep quarterback, Christian Hackenberg, when the Lions open their season this afternoon against Syracuse at MetLife Stadium.

O’Brien hasn’t confirmed his choice of either Hackenberg or junior college product Tyler Ferguson, but if we’ve learned anything about O’Brien so far it’s this: He’s not afraid to take risks, and he sure doesn’t shrink from the grand stage.

“This is a big game,” he said earlier this week. “Anytime you play in New York City, you’re on the big stage. It’s on ABC. You’re playing in MetLife Stadium.”

He noted that MetLife will host this year’s Super Bowl. And by the way, he’s participated in it – as recently as 2012.

O’Brien lives in the “now” moment so he deflected a question about how today – followed by a string of non-conference home games in September before starting the Big Ten schedule at Indiana – presents a golden opportunity to add more bricks to a sturdy foundation that some saw as crumbling 13 months ago.

“It’s definitely a new season,” he said, trying to nip the link. “So it’s not so much building on momentum from last year, it’s more about, ‘okay, what is this ’13 team going to do?’ And now here we have an opportunity to go play in a great venue and hopefully do a great job for our fans.

“I think that everybody around here has to understand that 2012 is over. I know our players understand that.”

Guard Miles Dieffenbach does. He said, “We don’t look forward too much. We just try to win the day.”

Since O’Brien arrived, Penn State has won most of the days it can control and has raised expectations for its potential under his watch, especially with regard to how it approaches the game offensively and what we can expect from its quarterback.

Matt McGloin, about to button down a roster spot with the Oakland Raiders, proved that.

O’Brien entered the fall expecting to make a declaration over his quarterback a couple of weeks ago. But the longer camp went, the more Hackenberg kept himself squarely in the hunt, going from trailing Ferguson to pulling even to prompting O’Brien to keep it a secret – presumably to reduce the pressure off the decorated true freshman.

It’s a perfect situation to bring Hackenberg along, given that there are so many experienced parts around the QB position – a veteran offensive line, talented backs and receivers and three or four safety-value tight ends.

Whether the offense will be enough to carry a defense that is inexperienced in key spots (defensive line, cornerback) and lacking depth (linebacker) will be a backdrop all season.

We saw O’Brien’s penchant for springing surprises last year. Now that he’s had an entire offseason to scheme, the bar on the unexpected will be even higher. Don’t be shocked to see a flea flicker or some trickeration on the first series.

“What you try to do on both sides of the ball, you talk to these guys about how you’re going to open the game,” O’Brien said. “We really don’t know what they’re going to do. They don’t know what we’re going to do. So how are we going to open the game?”

If last year was an indication, it will be in entertaining fashion.