Bill O'Brien allowed himself to relax a little for his first weekend without a football game in nearly two months — but only briefly.
So after taking his wife out for a nice dinner, it was back to the work — bright and early — the next day for Penn State's coach. Following a well-earned off week, the Nittany Lions want to keep the momentum of a four-game winning streak rolling into this weekend's tough trip to Iowa.
"Our team needs to understand that, that it's one thing to have a bye week," O'Brien said Tuesday. "But it's a whole other thing to be playing a team like Iowa, and we've got to try to go out here and practice and be precise and practice hard with great effort every day."
His players seemed to have heeded the message, even the younger Nittany Lions thrust into starting jobs who have never played such prominent roles before this season.
"We're not leaving any stuff on the field, and taking the approach of six one-game seasons," sophomore receiver Allen Robinson said.
Both Penn State and Iowa enter this weekend's tilt with identical records (4-2, 2-0 Big Ten). A win Saturday for Penn State, coupled with a victory by No. 7 Ohio State over Purdue, would set up a high-stakes showdown on Oct. 27 between the Nittany Lions and Buckeyes for first place in the Leaders Division.
But O'Brien has schooled his players well. While they appreciate the kind words, they're ignoring the feel-good narrative that has emerged from the four-game winning streak for a rebuilding program that been mired for months in scandal.
That storyline may disappear if Penn State can't snap its four-game losing streak to Iowa in Iowa City. The Nittany Lions haven't won there since a 31-7 victory in 1999.
"This is the meat of the schedule, a very tough schedule, starting with an excellent Iowa football team," O'Brien said. "It's nice, we respect the recognition ... but it's much more important to focus on the opponent."
If the first half of the season is any indication, the Nittany Lions won't have a problem getting motivated for Saturday. The NCAA took away any shot at the postseason because of sanctions related to the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal, so these players treat every game like it's a bowl game.
Senior leaders like standout linebacker Michael Mauti and fullback Michael Zordich have set the every-second-counts tone. But O'Brien has also received strong first-half performances from the sophomore Robinson (Big Ten-best seven receiving TDs); and redshirt freshman tight end Kyle Carter, the team's second-leading receiver with 23 catches for 279 yards and a score.
"What's impressed me is the poise, the ability to focus ... and the ability to understand the task at hand," O'Brien said. "We've got a bunch of guys here who understand there are certain things you can't control.
"Let's do the things we can control and try to get better at those."
Carter this week was named to the John Mackey Award midseason watch list, the only freshman to be named a candidate for the postseason award for the best collegiate tight end. They're two of a group of Nittany Lions who have nicknamed themselves the "Supa Six," with the other members being cornerback Adrian Amos, left tackle Donovan Smith, tailback Bill Belton and defensive end Deion Barnes.
All six players have played big roles in O'Brien's considerable rebuilding program.
"That's what you work for," Amos said. "It's our job to make an impact."
O'Brien said neither he, nor his team, care about individual honors, though the coach didn't pass up an opportunity to lobby for his players, though. Mauti and fellow linebacker Gerald Hodges, along with defensive tackle Jordan Hill, were left off the midseason list of the Top 25 candidates for the Rotary Lombardi Award, given each postseason to the nation's top college lineman or linebacker.
Mauti, Hodges and Hill are the key cogs on one of the Big Ten's top defenses.
"But I do think that there's a certain amount of ridiculousness that a guy like Mike Mauti or Gerald Hodges or Jordan Hill, those three guys defensively aren't on," O'Brien said when asked about the omissions. "I can't imagine that there (are) many linebackers or defensive linemen in the country better than those guys."
O'Brien also singled out middle linebacker Glenn Carson for his first-half play. He said he didn't know how the awards process worked, but that he thought the lists should be released after the season instead of in the middle of the year.