O'Brien brought that same attitude to work every day and by dint of hard work, patiently turned the Nittany Lions' weaknesses into strengths. Instead of an attack that relied on running back Silas Redd, who lit out for USC in the wake of the NCAA sanctions, O'Brien drew on his experience at New England and turned former walk-on quarterback Matt McGloin into a budding Tom Brady. After kicker Sam Ficken missed four field goals, including a potential game-winner in the final seconds of a 17-16 loss to Virginia — the previous starter, Anthony Fera, lit out for Texas in the wake of those same NCAA sanctions — O'Brien refused to blame the inexperienced backup. Instead, he had the Nittany Lions try to convert fourth downs in a variety of unlikely situations — 20 times this season so far, including 5 of 6 successful conversions in a comeback win last Saturday against Northwestern.
"We're fortunate to have the kids and the staff that we do. They committed to us in tough times. Matt McGloin is a very bright kid, he had plenty of experience playing in big games before I ever got here, so you have to give him a lot of credit. To this point, he and everyone else has done everything we asked," O'Brien said.
"What I try to do in return is be decisive, whether it's a meeting or a game-time decision. They may be the wrong decisions," he laughed, "but there's no hemming and hawing, we just go and make the best of things. I've learned that's half the battle."
Penn State has a bye week, then resumes Big Ten conference play Oct. 20 against Iowa, the start of what O'Brien calls the "meat of our schedule." He's stayed in touch with Belichick throughout, less for advice about X's and O's than for guidance on how a rookie head coach should conduct himself.
"He's a competitor through and through," Belichick said in an email. "Penn State hired a great person and a solid football man. I'm not surprised in the least at any success he's had."
O'Brien, though, isn't taking anything for granted. He punctuates every other sentence about the Nittany Lions' success with the words "to this point."
"When the Penn State job opened up, I weighed the positives and negatives. It offers a great education, great football, a great stadium — those are all things I believe in," he said. "And even though some tough times had just occurred and there are bound to be tough times ahead, I knew that down the road this could be a special place again."
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.