Another day, another new team in the Big Ten. And another familiar face for Penn State.
Some 20 years after Joe Paterno's dream of an all-sports Eastern athletic conference fell apart, the Big Ten continued its push eastward on Tuesday by officially accepting Rutgers as the league's 14th member. Maryland came aboard on Monday.
I think it's fantastic, Penn State coach Bill O'Brien said Tuesday. I think it's cool. You have the East Coast market now, and for many years Penn State was the East Coast team. And now, to me, we're starting to get that whole Atlantic corridor there, and those are two great schools with good football traditions.
O'Brien has a closer connection to the situation than most. He spent two years as an assistant coach at Maryland under Ralph Friedgen as a running backs coach in 2003 and 2004.
There are plenty of Maryland connections on O'Brien's staff as well. Linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden was the head coach of the Terrapins before coming to Penn State. Strength coach Craig Fitzgerald played for the Terps and was a three-year letterman. Defensive line coach Larry Johnson is a former high school coach in Maryland.
I was there at Maryland and we had some great players, O'Brien said. Vernon Davis, Shawne Merriman, D'Qwell Jackson, Josh Allen. We had many good players. … So it's going to be fun to have them in the league.
And Rutgers is official here, too, and I think that's great. It's going to be fun to play against them.
An ESPN report on Monday said Maryland and Rutgers would slide into the Leaders Division along with Penn State upon joining the conference with Illinois moving to the Legends Division. On Tuesday, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany firmly denied that anything was settled, saying that the league's athletic directors will need to first sit down and discuss realignment.
But Delany acknowledged that geography will likely be a bigger factor in splitting up a 14-team league as opposed to the current 12-team model, lending credence to the idea that the newcomers will both be packaged with Penn State.
Once touted as a guy who could handle 20 to 25 carries a game by O'Brien, tailback Bill Belton has touched the ball exactly once in November.
O'Brien initially cited performance in practice as a reason for Belton's lack of playing time. On Tuesday he said it's more about Zach Zwinak establishing himself as the feature back with three straight games over 130 yards rushing.
Billy and I have had a lot of conversations over the last month and he's really improved his practice habits quite a bit, O'Brien said. Here is a guy (Zwinak) that's on a bit of a roll. That's what happens. … One guy comes in and takes advantage of his opportunity, and it's hard to get him off the field.
Billy is a competitive guy. He's doing better off the field, in the classroom, I believe. And we still see a very bright future for Billy.
Michael Mauti (knee) and Kyle Carter (wrist) are both out for Saturday's finale against Wisconsin.
Three others – safety Malcolm Willis (knee), defensive tackle James Terry (foot) and tailback Curtis Dukes (head) – are all considered day-to-day.
Among the 30 players who will be honored before the game for senior day, seven still have eligibility remaining but will elect to not return to play in 2013.
Three of those seven are scholarship players in wide receiver Christian Kuntz, offensive lineman Frank Figueroa and defensive back Mike Wallace. All have played sparingly during their four years with the program and Wallace has missed the entire season with an injury.
The other four who will suit up for the last time are fullback Andre Dupree, long snapper Emery Etter, cornerback Patrick Flanagan and Valley View grad J.R. Refice.