Penn State Football: Doing the Best They Can

In a post-Sandusky, post-Paterno world, coach Bill O’Brien and his team—especially an astonishing quartet of seniors—is making Nittany Nation proud.

Despite the fact that the Big Ten Conference as a whole is playing poorly and living almost completely off its reputation, a few potholes remain on the Penn State schedule. That visit from Ohio State on Oct. 27 won’t likely be too pleasant, thanks to new coach Urban Meyer’s insistence on running the Buckeyes like an SEC program, rather than a cement-footed Rust Belt outfit. And going to Lincoln on Nov. 10 ought to be a tough challenge, even if OSU shucked the Cornhuskers but good Saturday night.

But considering where the Nittany Lions were one month ago, it doesn’t matter if they must play six NFL teams the rest of the way. First-year head coach Bill O’Brien and his senior leaders have done a remarkable job of turning what could have been a disastrous season into something positive. Saturday’s thrilling, come-from-behind win over previously unbeaten Northwestern was Penn State’s fourth triumph in a row, and it established O’Brien as a frontrunner for national Coach of the Year honors.

As Jerry Sandusky prepares for his sentencing hearing Thursday, the PSU community has some much-needed good news, thanks to a football team that has moved past a pair of ugly early-season defeats and now looks capable of winning eight or nine games. O’Brien has imbued the program with a sense of hope and has the team believing that it can compete against anybody. It doesn’t hurt that the Big Ten is a mess, with members’ losing to MAC teams and featuring some truly shoddy quarterback play. The good news: 10 teams will still probably play in bowls. The bad news: they will lose most of them.

Perhaps the best thing about the Penn State recovery is what it means for the future. With scholarship numbers to be capped at 65, it is vital Nittany Lion coaches make few mistakes when recruiting players. Had PSU continued to struggle after the early losses to Ohio and Virginia, it would have been extremely hard to convince talented players even to look at the school, much less commit. But now that the Lions are playing exciting, spirited football, coaches will be able to sell some talented prospects on the opportunity to be part of something on the rise, rather than a sinking ship. There is no guarantee Penn State won’t sag considerably as the scholarship reductions take hold, and the normal toll of injuries, attrition and unfulfilled promise depletes an already compromised roster. But at least Penn State hasn’t staggered about as if in an NCAA-induced funk and given committed recruits and others interested in the program reason to flee screaming into the night.

Now, Penn State fans shouldn’t get too happy with their situation. The Nittany Lions are still facing a four-year post-season ban, and it won’t be too easy to convince 18-year olds–hardly the most patient demographic–to delay the gratification of bowl goodies and a chance to get drilled by an SEC rival on New Year’s Day, all for the love of State U. Despite the prosperity the Nittany Lions have enjoyed over the past month, the next several years could turn bleak and have far-reaching consequences.

Of course, don’t tell that to Michael Zordich, Gerald Hodges, Matt McGloin and Michael Mauti. The senior quartet is the backbone of the team and as inspirational a crew as there has ever been at Penn State. For so many years, it was about Joe Paterno and the program he had constructed. Now, with O’Brien’s learning how to run a program under extraordinary circumstances, Zordich, Hodges, McGloin and Mauti have emerged as more than just the latest parts of the Paterno legacy. Just as the four seniors who in 1992 led Kentucky’s basketball program to the brink of the Final Four (curse you, Christian Laettner) after fast Eddie Sutton landed it on probation are known as “The Unforgettables,” so too will this group occupy a special place in Penn State football lore. Even if they don’t win the Leaders Division, these Nittany Lions will be remembered as the group that was able to make people push Sandusky and his disgusting deeds off the front page once in a while.

Saturday, against Northwestern, McGloin completed 35-of-51 passes for 282 yards and two scores, Zordich had a touchdown and a key two-point conversion run, Hodges was merely omnipotent on defense, and Mauti had nine tackles. They had plenty of help, to be sure, but the four of them form the vanguard of the team and will be the primary reasons the prosperity continues or subsides.

Granted, large-scale success could lead to a return of the same culture that enabled Sandusky to prey upon youngsters on the Penn State campus. So, it’s important to realize that no amount of gridiron prosperity should be a substitute for the kind of substantive cultural transformations that the university must make. Football can no longer be the school’s primary identity. But as long as Penn State is still playing on Saturdays, it’s good to have a group like Zordich, et al as team leaders. Their devotion to institution and ability to play with great zeal and character despite adversity are good starting points for the future–on many levels.

As Sandusky steps back into the spotlight this week and reminds us of what can happen when a school’s priorities become hopelessly skewed, this group of PSU football players, along with O’Brien and his staff, are giving fans inspirational football. It’s not enough to erase the pain for the victims or the university’s shame, but it’s the best they can do in a tough situation. And that’s pretty good.

SUCKER PUNCHES

  • It doesn’t matter whether Michael Vick played a solid second half against Pittsburgh. He wasn’t tight for the first 30 minutes. His two turnovers were backbreakers, and that is no way for a first-rate QB to play. Until he stops trying to “make a play” and starts doing the right thing, the Eagles can have no serious championship aspirations. And, since Vick has given no indication he is willing–or able–to change his ways, the Birds are in trouble long term with him at the helm.
  • Now that the Phillies have purged their staff and installed Charlie Manuel’s successor in the third-base coaching box, they can begin the business of making the team better. The new instructors may make a difference in terms of fundamentals (let’s hope so), but it’s up to the players to perform. The 2012 roster didn’t have enough frontline talent. That must change.
  • If fans in Philadelphia had littered the field with debris after a bad call, as the folks in Atlanta did after Friday night’s criminal infield fly ruling, it would have made national headlines and spawned a torrent of outrage regarding the city’s boorish behavior. There would have been similar indignation if Eagles fans had cheered the hometown quarterback’s injury, as Kansas City “faithful” did Sunday when Baltimore’s Haloti Ngata hammered Matt Cassel to the turf. Philly fans aren’t perfect, but no other city’s supporters are, either. Too bad the rest of the country doesn’t get that.

 

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