Penn State trying to prove it's still 'special'

Nittany Lions bounced back on and off the field

Published: October 18 2012 | 1:24 pm - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 2:11 am in

They haven’t forgotten.

“We’ve been through so much here and we just want to continue to fight. We knew how special this place was,” Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin said. “And we just wanted to show these younger guys how it was and we wanted to remind everybody across the country how special it is.”

The country has forgotten, either. Penn State was hit with four years of NCAA sanctions including stripped scholarships, postseason bans and fines of $60 million. It came down in an unprecedented timely fashion following The Freeh Report, which illustrated the acts by former defensive coordinated Jerry Sandusky and the university’s administration.

For some players, it was too much to forget. Silas Redd, the team’s leading rusher from a year ago, headlined nine Penn State transfers, when he departed Happy Valley for Southern California. Since then, the number grew to 13.

The players who stayed found themselves in the public’s crosshairs.  Penn State looked to be in shambles: Two games, two losses, both in heart breaking fashion – at home to Ohio and on the road in Virginia. The outside noise was deafening -- PSU might be the new SMU.

“I think while after the first couple of games, we just knew that we really got to buckle down and focus even that much more to try to get the best out of the season,” sophomore wide receiver Allen Robinson said. “I think that our seniors and stuff have really preached that never, never put our heads down.”

The games began in September, but the preaching began in June and July. While the nation peered at State College, Penn., the Penn State players united on the practice field. While the details of the past came out, the players focused on the future.  As the scrutiny grew, so did their bond.

“Over the summer and everything happened and because in the summer you’re training with seniors, the ones who are working the hardest and continuing to push, you know we could see what they were fighting for,” junior running back Zach Zwinak said. “It’s easy to follow guys like that because they’re good people. You see what they’re doing and you’re like ‘I want to do the same thing they are.”

The attitude built in the summer stood strong through 13 players departing and an 0-2 start. Even the slightest crack in the foundation and Nittany Lions might still have a goose egg in the win column. O’Brien and his staff might be on the hot seat. And the country would only be talking about Jerry Sandusky.

Instead, Penn State is 4-2 and 2-0 in the Big Ten. O’Brien is at the top of the list for Coach of the Year, and people are finally beginning to talk about football again.

“Since training camp began, yeah there has been something that happened, no question about it,” O’Brien said. “What’s impressed me about this team and this coaching staff through six games, training camp and spring practice we’ve got to continue this, but is the poise. Is the ability to focus. Is the ability to understand the task at hand and don’t worry about all the things you can’t control.”

Others are starting to be impressed. Penn State currently has the 48th best recruiting class in the nation coming in for 2013 according to Rivals.com. It ranks eighth in the Big Ten, but with the sanctions O’Brien and his staff have to hurdle, a top 50 class is respectable and could improve.

“In my opinion this has been a very special place with a great tradition of football and academics and people have a lot of respect for it and they understand our message and the direction which we’re going,” O’Brien said. “Whether it was this week or six months ago I think the reception has been very positive.”

There’s that word again – special.” It’s not a word that would be used to describe the last 365 days in Happy Valley. In the past, it wouldn’t  be used to describe a season that can’t end in a bowl game.

Yet six weeks into the season, it fits. And a quarterback leading the conference in passing yards, a wide receiver leading the conference in yards per game and a defense that ranks 15th in the nation in scoring has the country remembering why it used to fit.

“Our senior class understands that we’re playing for something, that is, what we’re trying to do is to bring this university back to where it should be where we’re playing in front of (fans) every Saturday,” McGloin said. “…We know the support will constantly be there. We just want the fans, alumni, student section to know we’re giving everything we have and leaving it out there on Saturdays.”

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