Resilient Penn State focuses on next big test

The story of the 2012 Penn State team just keeps getting more interesting … and improbable. Back in August, no one was authoring this script. No one saw the Nittany Lions becoming a Big Ten star with a 5-2 overall record and 3-0 Big Ten mark with Ohio State rolling into State College, Pa., on the last Saturday of October.

With both programs strapped with NCAA probation and unable to win the Big Ten or to play in a bowl, nothing is on the line—yet everything is on the line, especially for Penn State. The Nittany Lions’ probation extends longer and is harsher than Ohio State’s, giving Penn State a deeper hole to dig out of. That’s why winning big right now is so important.

[RELATED: Week 9 previews, including Ohio State at Penn State. | Full Week 9 Big Ten Scoreboard ]

With each successive victory, Penn State coach Bill O’Brien has tangible evidence to show his current players—who still can transfer and be immediately eligible until next August—and recruits that the near future isn’t so bleak, that it isn’t so bad. You can stay or come to Penn State, get developed as a player, have fun, help restore the proud program and … win. Yes, win. That didn’t seem very possible when the heavy NCAA hammer came down this summer.

“I would definitely say that these guys have earned the right to play in this type of game,” O’Brien said. “They’ve put a lot of time in. They’ve been through a lot. They’ve done it. Everything that we’ve asked them to do, they’ve done.

“Be on time. Practice hard. Lift hard. Run hard. Compete. They’ve done it. And so they’ve definitely earned the right to play in this type of a game in front of 108,000 fans, and I really–you know, I obviously expect 108,000 fans there, and I think our fans will be very, very supportive of our team on Saturday night.”

The NCAA violations and probation slapped on Penn State are unprecedented. We can debate for eternity if the punishment is just, but it’s fruitless at this point. O’Brien and his team are moving forward. And they are doing so without a few of Penn State’s best players, who had the choice to transfer and did. The list includes top running back Silas Redd leaving for USC, top receiver Justin Brown going to Oklahoma, and kicker/punter Anthony Fera departing to Texas.

[RELATED: Listen to O’Brien and other coaches talk to reporters on the Big Ten Teleconference.]

Amazingly, none of that has had a debilitating impact on Penn State this year, as new stars have emerged in quarterback Matt McGloin, wideout Allen Robinson and tight end Kyle Carter, among others.

But the program’s ability to stand toe to toe with its Big Ten brethren will be compromised severely in coming years. Soon, scholarship sanctions from the NCAA probation will have their full impact, knocking the Nittany Lions from 85 to 65. That’s the same number of scholarships as an FCS program. Then we likely will see Penn State struggle on the field.
But until then, enjoy the ride, Penn State fans. It has been fun to watch this band of Nittany Lions players and coaches unite to become one of the conference’s top three or four teams in 2012.

When Penn State started 0-2 with losses at home to Ohio and at Virginia, it looked like the worst gloom-and-doom forecasts were going to be true. But since then, the Nittany Lions have ripped off consecutive victories over Navy, Temple, Illinois, Northwestern and Iowa.

Now comes the biggest test of all: a visit from Ohio State. Beat the Buckeyes, and the legacy of this 2012 Penn State will continue to grow and find a place in the history and heart of this great program.

These are the players who always will be remembered for not giving up on the school in its darkest hour. They remained—heart-and-soul guys like Michael Mauti, Gerald Hodges, Jordan Hill—united to help the Penn State football team, school and community convalesce and heal.

And, yes, win.

“I can’t say enough about these players,” said O’Brien. “These guys are the guys that stuck with us. They’re tough kids. They’re smart. You just have to always tell them the truth. And as long as you do that, whether it’s something that maybe they don’t always want to hear or it’s a positive reinforcement, these guys really appreciate that. So that’s just really what we try to do every day.”

[RELATED: Score rewards points and win prizes by getting social with BTN RewardsU all season.]

It reminds me of the 1989-90 Kentucky Wildcat basketball team that was paralyzed by NCAA probation in the wake of the Eddie Sutton era. Like Penn State, Kentucky was led by a first-year coach in Rick Pitino, who had come from the pros to restore the luster on a glorious program. And Pitino—along with a staff that included Tubby Smith, Herb Sendek, Ralph Willard and Billy Donovan–did it with a rag-tag roster of players who forever are known in the Bluegrass State as the “Unforgettables.”

Players like Richie Farmer, Derrick Mills, Deron Feldhaus, John Pelphrey and Sean Woods anchored that team, forging an unlikely 14-14 record when many expected much worse with the loss of stars like Eric Manuel and Sean Mills. That team laid the foundation for Kentucky’s return to greatness. And the program never has looked back. This Penn State team can forge a similar legacy, helping set the table for greater tomorrows.

No one has forgotten about Sandusky’s victims, and no one should forget, not ever. The victims continue to be in everyone’s thoughts and prayers as justice is meted out.

But this football team has to move forward in waters never before navigated. So far, so good for the steely focused and tough O’Brien, the perfect coach for these perfectly tough times. And a victory over the 8-0 Buckeyes would ultimate prove what O’Brien is trying to sell.

“As far as playing football goes, this is a great college football game in what will be a great college football atmosphere against a team that has the same type of tradition and history as Penn State,” O’Brien said. “So to me that’s what college football is all about, the game itself.”

***

GRID BITS: Under Bo Pelini, Nebraska is 10-0 when it doesn’t commit a turnover. … No running back has rushed for 100 yards in a game against Michigan State since Montee Ball did it in the Big Ten title game last season. … After averaging 16.3 points over their first three games, the Badgers have scored an average of 34.2 points over their last five. And Wisconsin’s rushing production has also gone up markedly, from 119.7 yards per game over the first three games to 249.2 yards per game in the last five. … The Hoosiers defense has 13 sacks and 48 tackles for loss. Indiana didn’t reach those totals until Game 10 last year. … Illinois has faced the nation’s 23rd-toughest schedule so far this season, as Illini opponents have an aggregate 22-13 record against FBS competition (not including their game against Illinois). Non-conference FBS foes Louisiana Tech (6-1), Arizona State (5-2) and Western Michigan (3-5) are a combined 14-8 overall this season. … Iowa won nine games in a row at Northwestern from 1975-93. Since then, the Hawkeyes are 2-7 in Evanston. … The Wolverines have allowed only 14 plays of 20 yards this year, tied with Texas Tech for best in the land. Alabama is one behind. … Penn State has outscored foes, 66-0, in the first quarter this season, and 170-69 overall during its five-game win streak. … The 12-10 slugfest against Michigan State marked the first time the Wolverines won without scoring a touchdown since 1995 (5-0 vs. Purdue). In its last five games, Michigan allowed 9.8 points on average. … Philip Nelson is just the third true freshman to start at quarterback in Minnesota history (Max Shortell in 2011, Rickey Foggie in ‘84). … Wisconsin’s Montee Ball and James White have combined to average 356.0 yards rushing in the last two games. They are the only Division I-A teammates to rush for 150-plus yards in the same game.

BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

And if you want to leave a comment on this post, use the box below. All comments need to be approved by a moderator.

Find out more about:

0 Comments

Your Opinion?
Show Comments (No Comments)

Comments are closed.