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With Badgers on deck, PSU, O'Brien focus on future

AP - Sports
With Badgers on deck, PSU, O'Brien focus on future
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Penn State tight end Jesse James (18) celebrates with teammate Eugene Lewis (7) after taking a pass from …

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) -- Penn State's game at Wisconsin on Saturday will end one season and begin another.

Coach Bill O'Brien's focus is usually squarely on the upcoming game, but his overall outlook about the Nittany Lions' trip to Madison to face the 14th-ranked Badgers (9-2, 6-1 Big Ten) has widened.

''The reason why we're focused on Wisconsin has a little bit to do with the future,'' O'Brien said. ''We have another chance to send these seniors out on a winning note, and that's really important, but it's also a chance for our younger players who are coming back next year to go out there against a very good football team and play well.

''It's an important football game and we're focused on that, but I feel really good about where the program's at.''

Penn State (6-5, 3-4) cannot go to a bowl game, but that will again give time for O'Brien to focus on recruiting, like last offseason. Already, the program has 15 verbal commitments that are expected to sign in February.

O'Brien likes his freshman class, as well, saying he doesn't have any ''busts.''

''(And) there are some really good players that nobody's even seen yet,'' he said, ''who are redshirting.''

Penn State will need all of them as they look to re-enter the elite level of the Big Ten next season.

''We're always trying to stay one step ahead,'' O'Brien said.

The roster will shrink by 17 players on Saturday after a season that opened with much promise - and a 2-0 start.

''We feel real, real good about a lot of veteran players coming back next year,'' said O'Brien, 14-9 at Penn State. ''I think our program, with the two-year sanctions we've been under and limited guys we could offer, stands on pretty solid ground.''

A lot of that has to do with quarterback Christian Hackenberg, four times named the Big Ten freshman player of the week. He's been aided by a consistent rushing attack that gained experience through developmental scrimmages.

Penn State's defense has ''improved every single week,'' O'Brien added, but special teams are still an area of concern. Purdue and Nebraska returned kickoffs for touchdowns against the Nittany Lions the past two weeks.

''Everybody who watches Penn State knows that special teams have been a struggle at times,'' O'Brien said. ''In the other times it's been OK, but it's been too inconsistent. We'll look at that.''

On the injury front, O'Brien said safety Adrian Amos has a foot sprain, ''but seems to be moving around better and better.'' Running back Bill Belton, out last week against Nebraska because of a strep throat and sore shoulder, should play.

Zack Zwinak, the team's other running back who needs 126 yards for his second straight 1,000-yard season, is nursing a sore wrist and other bumps and bruises, O'Brien said.

''There's only one game left,'' O'Brien said. ''Our guys will be ready to go out there and lay it on the line.''

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NOTES: O'Brien said the team will practice Thursday morning and have Thanksgiving dinner together in the afternoon. ... The coaching staff continues to evaluate special teams personnel, but O'Brien doesn't expect major changes. ... A Penn State loss Saturday would snap a streak of eight straight seasons with a winning record. ... Penn State is 7-1 under O'Brien coming off of losses the previous week.

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