Notebook: 'Relaxing' during the bye week

Matt Stankiewitch can't wait for this weekend so he can take a break from football -- by, well, watching football.

With the Iowa game eight days away, Stankiewitch planned to park himself in front of a TV on Saturday to perform some preliminary scouting on the Hawkeyes.

"I'd expect almost everyone on our team to be watching that game at 12 o'clock Saturday. I'm not going to be changing the channel even during commercials," Stankiewitch said, referring to the Iowa-Michigan State contest. "I'm going to be watching their defensive line and linebacking corps."

Bill O'Brien told Stankiewitch and his teammates to take it easy this weekend and heal up because, come Monday, the vacation's over.

So, most players traveled home after three days of practice to enjoy the brief reprieve. Stankiewitch is heading to his high school's homecoming. Steven Bench tweeted out a photo alongside two of his golden retrievers. Gerald Hodges expected some homemade fried chicken. And Jordan Hill planned to watch his old Steelton-Highspire team.

"It's big, especially because we're exactly in the middle of the year," Hill said. "It's big just to get rested up so all the bumps and bruises can go away. We get a chance to just relax for a couple days."

The coaching staff won't take a day off, though. O'Brien and assistant Charles London will be in Fork Union, Va., on Friday, and the coach doesn't plan to stop working.

"Oh, there's no break," O'Brien said. "Maybe get out a little earlier, but we got a very tough Iowa team. Guys are going to be out recruiting, and we'll be back here then getting ready for Iowa."

Primary problem with the secondary: DB coach John Butler hasn't yet utilized a nickel package. But there's a perfectly reasonable explanation for that, he said -- he just doesn't have the personnel.

"I know a lot of readers are wondering why we don't play nickel," Butler said, "and I was wondering why we only had six DBs when I took the job here."

Butler said he ideally needs 11 or 12 defensive backs but might have to settle for nine or 10 because of the sanctions. In place of the nickel, Penn State has been sliding Adrian Amos to safety and bringing speedy linebacker Mike Hull in on passing downs.

"What we're not going to do is take a player off the field who's maybe better than a secondary player," Butler said.

Coach of the Year?: O'Brien is currently in first place in the Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year's fan poll, which helps determine the finalists. He leads Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads by nearly a 2-to-1 margin.

"I've only coached six games my whole career," O'Brien said. "That's the farthest thing from my mind."

Although the fine print states finalists must not have had major program infractions assessed by the NCAA, a spokesman from Liberty Mutual told ESPN that O'Brien remains eligible for the award. The finalists will be announced Dec. 4.

"Hog treats": With a new staff comes new traditions -- and for the offensive line, it's "hog treats."

Every Friday night, the wife of offensive line coach Mac McWhorter will deliver a goodie-basket of fudge and other snacks to the linemen. She's the "Hog Mama."

"We joke around about the 'hog treats' that make you nasty and physical for the next game," Stankiewitch said. "It's just a superstition, but it's a tradition we have."

And what exactly is in those treats to make the players more physical?

"Like I said," McWhorter said, joking, "I would really have to kill you if I told you."

Defensive strength: Penn State has performed some midseason evaluations during the bye week, and Hill said this defense's strength this season has been pressuring the quarterback.

"We've hit the quarterback a lot in these past six games," he said. "It's more than we have since I've been here, just hitting the quarterback. Now we got to get to the next step so that we're sacking him more and not just hitting him more."