Patriots

Penn State's program is far from dead

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Penn State's program is far from dead

From Comcast SportsNet
The mere suggestion that NCAA sanctions against Penn State were worse than receiving the so-called death penalty were enough to make first-year coach Bill O'Brien raise his voice a notch. "No. We are playing football," O'Brien said forcefully during a conference call Tuesday with reporters. "We open our season on Sept. 1 in front of 108,000 strong against Ohio University. We're playing football and we're on TV. We get to practice. We get to get better as football players, and get to do it for Penn State." The NCAA crushed Penn State with scholarship reductions that could be felt for much of this decade and a bowl ban over the next four seasons. But it stopped short of handing down the death penalty, forcing the school to shut down the program the way it did to SMU in 1987. It is fair to wonder if Penn State football will ever be what it once was: a perennial Top 20 program that routinely contended for Big Ten championships and occasionally national titles. But to suggest that Penn State's punishment is comparable to or worse than SMU's is to forget just how difficult it has been for the Mustangs to recover. And make no mistake, 25 years later, SMU football is still recovering. "Until you've completely killed a program, it's hard to understand all that it takes for a program to operate on a day-to-day basis," said Andy Bergfeld, a receiver on SMU's 1989 team, its first after the death penalty. "The fact that SMU had to start completely from scratch -- they went from playing in Texas Stadium to converting their 1920 home stadium into a place we could play our home games -- it was very, very difficult. I think Penn State, when all the dust settles, will have a lot better chance to recover more quickly." As difficult as it will be for Penn State to deal with having no more than 65 scholarship players for four years (their opponents will have 85) it's a whole lot better than having no scholarship players at all. SMU's program was shuttered by the NCAA for one year because it was a repeat offender found to be systematically paying players and that high-ranking university officials knew about the payments. The NCAA allowed SMU players to transfer without restrictions after the punishment was handed down, just as it is doing with Penn State players. With no chance of playing until at least 1988, just about all of the Mustangs left. "It was pretty much a no-brainer for anybody on that football team," said Mitchell Glieber, who was a redshirt freshman on SMU's 1986 team, the last one before the sanctions. "If you had aspirations of playing football beyond college there was no choice." As of Tuesday, Penn State has not lost a current player. No doubt defections will come, and O'Brien has said that right now keeping his team together is his top priority. Glieber felt that professional football was probably not in his future back in the late 80s, so he stuck it out at SMU, along with a handful of other players, mostly former walk-ons. SMU canceled the 1988 season as well, though it was allowed to hire a coach -- former Green Bay Packers great and Cincinnati Bengals coach Forrest Gregg, an SMU alum, was brought in -- and the team began practicing. "The caliber of talent between the pre-death penalty and the post-death penalty were absolutely night and day," said Glieber, who is now the vice president of marketing for the Texas State Fair. "In the first few weeks of practice I was just in disbelief about the level of players we had out there." SMU also had scholarship limits placed on the program by the NCAA and the school had responded to the scandal by drastically raising the academic standards for athletes, Glieber said. Glieber looked at the team SMU was hoping to compete with Southwest Conference rivals such as Texas and Texas A&M and thought: "Can this group of guys stay healthy and continue to field a team week to week?" "It was pretty bleak looking to be honest with you." SMU, remarkably, won two games its first season back. But the program was a wreck. When the Southwest Conference broke up, many of the top programs from that league ended up in the Big 12. SMU was cast aside. It is not unreasonable to think that the Big Ten, with multimillion dollar television contracts to fulfill that require 12 teams, would not have held a spot for Penn State if it had been given the death penalty. Instead, the Big Ten will withhold Penn State's portion of the conference's shared bowl revenue while the Nittany Lions are ineligible for the postseason. That will cost Penn State about 13 million. But the Nittany Lions will still get to have their games shown on the Big Ten Network. And probably on ESPN and ABC. The spotlight will still be on Penn State football, and that could be a good thing. The day after the NCAA's hammer dropped on Penn State, O'Brien made the media rounds, answering questions about how he will go about trying to lead the Nittany Lions through the difficult times that lie ahead. Mostly, though, O'Brien was delivering the message that there are still plenty of reasons to play football at Penn State. The former New England offensive coordinator and Joe Paterno's replacement ticked off the reasons several times. -- A chance to get a great education; -- The ability to "play football on TV in front of 108,000 fans" at Beaver Stadium; -- To be able to play "six or seven bowl games a year right here in State College in front of great fans"; -- His staff's ability to develop players for the NFL. And he left off a couple of others. Most likely, fans will still come to Beaver Stadium. College football weekends are about more than the game. They are about reunions of friends and family, a chance to cook out on crisp autumn days. Those things won't change in Happy Valley. Also, while a four-year bowl ban sounds tough, think about it like this. An incoming freshman who redshirts for a year -- retaining four years of eligibility -- will be able to play for the blue and white in a bowl his senior season. O'Brien has already shown signs of being a stellar recruiter. He was putting together a class that recruiting analysts were high on before the sanctions. Analyst Tom Lemming of CBS Sports said that he thinks the first two years under the sanctions will be lean, but O'Brien can start selling recruits a future with bowl games and Big Ten titles by Year 3 and Penn State could be back on track in five years. "It's all about the optimism and the ability to sell the future to these kids," Lemming said. O'Brien said he found out exactly what the sanctions were at the same time as everyone else, when NCAA President Mark Emmert announced them at a news conference Monday morning. Before they came down, O'Brien said he told his bosses what he wanted: "Let us play football and let us be on TV." "At the end of the day that's what you want to do: play football in a fantastic, beautiful stadium and you want your fans that can't go to the game to watch you on TV." It sure beats not playing at all.

If at first you don't succeed: Brady, Gordon hit on first back-shoulder attempt

If at first you don't succeed: Brady, Gordon hit on first back-shoulder attempt

CHICAGO -- When Tom Brady completed a fourth-down pass to Josh Gordon up the right seam, there were those who looked at the situation and may have felt as though the chemistry between quarterback and receiver had crossed a certain threshold. 

Not quite. They were there last week when Brady tossed an early fourth-down play up the left sideline to Gordon incomplete against the Chiefs. Weeks before that, against the Dolphins, in their first game together, Brady threw his first-ever pass to Gordon when facing a third-down play in the red zone. 

Trust had been established well before Sunday. Whether it's come from game reps, practice time, locker room chats -- or whether Brady simply looks at Gordon and understands his rare physical gifts make him trustworthy -- it's been there. 

What wasn't always there before Sunday's 38-31 win over the Bears was timing. Specifically, timing on back-shoulder throws. 

Brady and Gordon had tried three in their time together -- which we detailed here -- and finally in Chicago, in a critical spot, they hit one. The fourth-and-one back-shoulder call went for 19 yards in the second quarter and eventually led to a James White touchdown.

"I had it matched up one-on-one," Brady said. "And he just went up and got it. He made a great play. We are just going to keep developing our confidence in one another, and he's making great plays when I throw him the ball. Just got to keep doing it."

"Worked on our connection from last week," Gordon said, "having missed some adjustments. And this week I kind of got a better look at it."

MORE COVERAGE FROM PATRIOTS' WIN

Brady and Gordon missed on back-shoulder attempts twice against the Chiefs, but on Sunday they showed that their connection had taken another step. If the back-shoulder option is there on the outside for them consistently, it's hard to stop -- especially with a player like Gordon, who has the hands to snatch a pass out of the air quickly while turning back to the ball, and the frame to shield defenders in close proximity. 

It wasn't that Brady went to Gordon on fourth-down, or that Brady hit Gordon for 55 yards in the fourth quarter to set up White's second touchdown of the day. We already knew that Brady felt comfortable throwing to Gordon in key spots. 

But if Brady and Gordon are seeing coverages through the same set of eyes, and if their sense of timing is in sync, they'll continue to be hard to stop. Gordon finished with four catches for 100 yards in 61 snaps. 

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Trubisky scrambles frustrate the Patriots: 'There's never supposed to be an opening'

Trubisky scrambles frustrate the Patriots: 'There's never supposed to be an opening'

CHICAGO -- It was the Bears right cross that followed a pair of purposeless jabs. Mitchell Trubisky's runs on Sunday very much kept his team in the game and frustrated the Patriots defense to no end. 

Bill Belichick's club ended up downing the Bears, 38-31, but not before Trubisky carried six times for 81 yards and a touchdown.

"It's just poor execution," Trey Flowers said after the game. "Obviously there's never supposed to be an opening. You always want to contain the quarterback. He made some plays, caught us not executing properly, and we gave up the edge a few times."

The gashing started early. Trubisky scrambled on the first Bears third down of the day, picking up 14 when he only needed six. On the next drive, he scrambled on back-to-back plays to turn a second-and-13 into a first down. On third-and-six late in the first half, he picked up seven.

Trubisky also had a four-point back-breaker when on a third-and-five play from the Patriots eight-yard line, he rolled to his right, reversed the field and followed offensive lineman Kyle Long into the end zone to give the Bears a 10-7 lead.

"It's obviously frustrating," Flowers said, "just to work that hard on early downs and get into a situation where we have an opportunity to get off the field, and guys at the back end are doing their job covering receivers, and he's able to escape the pocket. As a defensive front, it's on us to keep him contained and not allow him to get those run yards outside the pocket."

MORE COVERAGE FROM PATRIOTS' WIN

The Patriots have done well to limit relatively athletic quarterbacks that they've seen throughout the course of the first seven weeks of the season. Patrick Mahomes (nine yards), Andrew Luck (zero), Ryan Tannehill (zero) and Matthew Stafford (10) were all kept quiet after the Patriots allowed a combined 75 yards to Blake Bortles (35) and Deshaun Watson (40). 

What Trubisky was able to do with his legs -- finding gaps on the edge or through the Patriots line when rush lanes were abandoned -- almost ruined the game for the Patriots, giving their defense something to focus on in their next week of practice.  

"They had big plays in the scramble," Belichick said when asked about limiting big pass plays. "So those are passing plays that we just didn't defend well. 

"I mean, look, there's a lot of things we could have done better today. We'll go work on those and try to improve them." 

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