Nothing Nittany Lions can do but play

Posted: November 11, 2011

And now, back to football . . .

If only it were that easy.

Then again, maybe it won't be as difficult as some believe for the Penn State Nittany Lions to refocus their attention on such seemingly mundane matters as blocking and tackling.

In the wake of the recent child sexual-abuse arrest of former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, which touched off an upheaval within the football program that led to the Board of Trustees' firing of 84-year-old coaching icon Joe Paterno on Wednesday night, not to mention near-riot conditions in the streets of downtown State College, the presumption might be that Penn State players will be too distracted, too much in a daze, to give their best effort against Nebraska in tomorrow's Senior Day game.

To hear some of the players tell it, however, that will not be the case. In fact, the unprecedented events of the past several days might even make the Lions more determined to prove all the doubters wrong.

"Obviously, this is a pretty tough time for everybody here at Penn State," said safety Drew Astorino, one of 20 seniors whose final game in Beaver Stadium normally would be an occasion for celebration, regardless of the final score. "It's been a very tough situation to deal with.

"But I think myself and the team are handling it well. First of all, we feel horrible for the victims and their families. We think about them all the time. But the 125 guys on this team had nothing to do with [the horrific acts] what happened years ago.

"We've been trying to deal with it by just leaning on each other. We have a great bond among these 125 players. We lean on each other for support, and we'll go on from there."

Tackle Chima Okoli, another senior, said adversity sometimes can have the effect of making a group of individuals band even tighter together.

"We'll be fine," Okoli said. "We know we have to come together, and this team is going to do it. It's going to galvanize us and get us to pull for one another, like we've been doing the last couple of weeks anyway. We need to do it for each other because this is our team. That's what coach Paterno would have supported. We're not going to hide and we're not going to roll over and play dead."

A lot of the victories might not have been aesthetically pleasing, but 12th-ranked Penn State comes into maybe the most unusual game in the program's 125-year history with an 8-1 overall record and a 5-0 mark in the Leaders Division of the Big Ten Conference. The Lions are the last undefeated team in league play, and they hold a two-game lead over Ohio State and No. 19 Wisconsin in the Leaders Division with three games to play.

A victory - and Penn State is a 2 1/2-point underdog to No. 19 Nebraska, which comes to Happy Valley for the first time since 2002 at 7-2 and 3-2 in the Legends Division - would ensure the team, now led by interim coach Tom Bradley, of a tie for first place in its division, and move it a large step closer to an historic berth in the Big Ten's first championship game, to be held Dec. 3 in Indianapolis' Lucas Oil Stadium.

And while Bradley and the players admit to being "shocked" by the nature of the ending of Paterno's illustrious career, it doesn't alter the fact that there is unfinished business to attend to.

"This team has put in a lot of hard work," Bradley said at a press conference yesterday to formally announce his perhaps temporary promotion, should the Board of Trustees decide, as expected, to do a thorough housecleaning of the football staff prior to the 2012 season. "This is Senior Day for them. They deserve to have this day. It's what they've worked for this whole season. My job is to facilitate that that happens.

"We have great leadership on this team, OK? It's their team. They're not here to help me, I'm here to help them. My job is to help them be as good as they possibly can be. I don't think there will be any problem. They'll be focused."

While the Huskers will be entering a highly charged environment, the Nebraska coaching staff is also urging focus on the game.

"Focus on what we're going there for," Huskers assistant Ron Brown told the Lincoln Journal Star. "We're not canceling the game. If we want to focus on all the other stuff, let's cancel the game and let's all be politicians and examine what took place at Penn State. We're football coaches and football players. God has to handle the rest of that stuff, and the Penn State administration, and the law . . . We have to go handle a football game.

"We're playing against a team that's undefeated in the Big Ten. Are we kidding ourselves? We better be zeroed in."

Other teams have risen up to overcome major distractions, although perhaps not anything on this scale. For the 1978 Orange Bowl, Arkansas coach Lou Holtz suspended his two top running backs the night before the game for disciplinary reasons, making the Razorbacks even more of an underdog against Oklahoma, which was bidding to win its third national championship in 4 years. But Arkansas' players, determined to prove they could overcome the absence of two important teammates, played their best game of the season in pulling off a 31-6 upset.

"We're a very close team," Astorino said. "I think we're a special group of guys. If anybody can overcome something like this, these players can."

3 THINGS TO LOOK FOR

-- Now is not the time for Penn State to crank up the two-quarterback carousel. Expect Matt McGloin to start and play the entire game unless, of course, he has a five-pick meltdown like that which occurred in last season's Outback Bowl loss to Florida.

-- Penn State is 6-0 this season in games decided by 10 or fewer points. This one should be tight, too, but it's tough to avoid falling into a hole you can't climb out of when you've been living on the edge for so long.

-- Can linebacker Gerald Hodges be named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week for the third time in as many Penn State games? Don't be surprised if he pulls off that hat trick.

PREDICTION

Nebraska 21, Penn State 17.

AGENDA

Who: No. 19 Nebraska at No. 12 Penn State

When: Saturday, noon

Where: Beaver Stadium, State College

Records: Nebraska 7-2, 3-2 Big Ten; Penn State 8-1, 5-0.

TV: ESPN

Radio: WNTP (990-AM); WPNV (1440-AM)

Series: Penn State leads, 7-6. In the most recent meeting, in 2003, the Cornhuskers won in Lincoln, 18-10.

Coaches: Bo Pelini (37-14, 4th year), Tom Bradley (0-0, first game as interim head coach, 33rd year on staff).

About Nebraska: Sophomore quarterback Taylor Martinez is known more for his running ability, and rightly so - he has carried the ball 134 times for 712 yards, a 5.3-yard average, and scored nine touchdowns. But Martinez is improving as a passer, as evidenced by his 28-for-37, 289-yard, two-TD day in last week's 28-25 home upset loss to Northwestern . . . Of longtime Penn State coach Joe Paterno's dismissal by the university Board of Trustees, Pelini said, "It's not a distraction for our football team" . . . Junior Rex Burkhead is having the sort of season you'd expect from the Cornhuskers' featured running back, gaining 951 yards on 187 carries (5.1 ypc) and scoring 13 TDs . . . Nebraska is a bit thin at defensive tackle with All-America candidate Jared Crick and Thad Randle out with injuries and Chase Randle questionable.

About Penn State: It's another Senior Day, another moment for Penn State players in their final season of eligibility to take their bows in front of an appreciative home crowd. This year's group of 20 seniors, however, will make its last final appearance in Beaver Stadium without Paterno to greet them and their parents, and with the cloud of the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal hovering over the festivities like a bad dream . . . The Beaver Stadium attendance record of 110,753, by the way, was set against Nebraska in 2002, a day when the Nits routed the Cornhuskers, 40-7 . . . StubHub is listing some good sideline seats, with a face value of $70, for $5,000 . . .

Nebraska players and coaches are expecting Penn State to continue giving the ball to workhorse tailback Silas Redd. And why not? The sophomore from Norwalk, Conn., had 133 carries in the five games played in October, gaining 703 yards. He has 1,006 yards on the season, becoming the 12th Penn State running back to join the 1,000-yard club for a season.

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