“He has already watched more film this week than anyone I have ever seen,” said R.J. Dill, O’Brien’s roommate and the team’s starting right tackle.
A sub-par performance is a rare occurrence for O’Brien, last season’s ACC rookie of the year, but he was uncharacteristically off his game at times against the Mountaineers. Whether the loss should be partly attributed to the suspension of two of his best wide receivers — Ronnie Tyler and Quintin McCree — or Maryland's inability to slow West Virginia’s high-octane offense is irrelevant to O’Brien.
He carries the loss on his own sophomore shoulders.
“Quarterback play always reflects how the team plays,” O’Brien said. “I played inconsistent.”
Saturday’s game against Temple (2-1) will offer a glimpse into how O’Brien responds to adversity. If it’s any indication, his approach to the week has impressed teammates, who noticed a particularly focused O’Brien when they arrived at the team house Sunday to lift weights.
“I saw it on his face,” wide receiver Kerry Boykins said. “He was in the meeting room watching film. He is so amped right now, ready to go, ready to get that taste out of his mouth.”
Wide receiver Kevin Dorsey, one of O’Brien’s close friends, said O’Brien has maintained his usual personality through the week, mixing lightheartedness with on-field intensity. But O’Brien has homed in on details.
“Right now, it is not enough for him to put the ball near the receiver,” Dorsey said. “He wants to put it exactly 18 inches in front of him if he is running a route.”
Saturday’s performance, which included one interception returned 37 yards for a touchdown and another to derail a potential game-winning touchdown drive in the final two minutes, was not the first time O’Brien struggled to meet his own admittedly high expectations.
His worst game in high school came on a day when he was ill. He threw three interceptions in a loss to Grimsley High. His high school coach, Todd Willert, a close mentor of O’Brien, verbally scolded O’Brien during the game to such an extent that local residents of Kernersville, N.C., wrote and e-mailed the coach with a unified message: Back off, he’s a good kid.
How did O’Brien respond? On his postseason goal sheet following his junior season, he underlined one school — Grimsley — and vowed to “play with a chip on our shoulder” to avenge the defeat. He did.
Last season, O’Brien combined for just one touchdown pass and four interceptions in disheartening losses at Clemson and Miami. In the games that immediately followed those respective losses, he responded with impressive efforts — five touchdown passes, zero interceptions — in wins at Boston College and Virginia.
O’Brien’s performance in 10 starts as a freshman heightened outside expectations this season. He’s been referenced along with Georgia’s Aaron Murray as one of the nation’s best sophomore quarterbacks. But Coach Randy Edsall, who admires O’Brien’s team-first attitude and notable work ethic, cautioned that O’Brien is a sophomore who will experience ups and downs as he grows as a quarterback. Edsall added that O’Brien has to be careful to not try to do too much.
“He has so much confidence in his own ability that there’s going to be times where he might try to throw the ball into a very small window when maybe he shouldn’t,” Edsall said. “I told him, ‘Sometimes an incomplete pass is the best thing that can happen.’ Those are things that don’t happen overnight with a quarterback.”
During the week, O’Brien echoed his coach’s comments. He said he could have probably run on two of the interceptions. (The other was said to be because of miscommunication.) And he said it’s important that he remembers to “live to see another down” if the defense takes away most options on a play.
One person concerned about O’Brien is Temple Coach Steve Addazio, the former Florida offensive coordinator who has pinpointed an intangible quality about the quarterback while studying film and watching O’Brien on television in the past.
“He looks like he has got it,” Addazio said. “He looks like he has that gamesmanship to him, that competitiveness to him. He can beat you with his feet. He’s got a great knack for throwing the ball. He’s a leader.
“I’ve heard all these things about him. I think he is one of those guys. You win a lot of football games with those kind of quarterbacks now. He is a scary dude.”
And this particular week, he is a determined dude. He credited his parents, two sisters and two good friends with providing much-needed moments of distraction with pizza last Saturday. His goal is to never have a dinner quite like that again.
“If you want to find out who your friends are, throw three picks,” O’Brien said. “Everyone else kind of scampers away. Hopefully I don’t have to find that out again.”