In the end, however, it was like business as usual, with the crowd screaming and imploring Penn State to make a successful comeback from a 17-0 deficit, a rally that fell short Saturday in a 17-14 loss to the Cornhuskers before 107,943.
This was the first time since 1949 that Penn State played a football game without Joe Paterno on the sideline or in the coaches box. Paterno, in his 46th year as head coach, was fired Wednesday night by the university's Board of Trustees in the wake of strong criticism for not reporting an alleged sexual assault on a minor involving former assistant Jerry Sandusky, an account he learned from another assistant, Mike McQueary.
Sandusky was charged with 40 counts of sexual assault on eight young boys. Two university officials, including athletic director Tim Curley, were charged with perjury in the case. McQueary was placed on administrative leave and didn't coach Saturday.
Throughout the game, thoughts of Paterno were in the hearts and minds of the players. He had sent a letter that was read to the team on Thursday, just hours after his firing, by former players who had started arriving in town for the game.
"When the lettermen read that to us, it was touching," offensive tackle Quinn Barham said. "They were teary eyed and some of us were crying too, just to hear that from him and knowing that he wasn't at the podium. Just not having him there really hurt us that day."
Perhaps no player was affected more by Paterno's absence than senior tailback Stephfon Green, who scored two touchdowns after the Lions fell into a 17-0 hole midway through the third quarter.
Green, who got most of the carries after starter Silas Redd injured his collarbone in the first half, had been suspended twice by Paterno this season. The team's seniors went to Paterno's home to ask for his reinstatement, and the coach granted it.
"I'm sitting in this seat right here," Green said. "If it wasn't for that man and the seniors, I wouldn't be here.
"He was here in the middle of the week, and then certain stuff happened and he wasn't. But we still tried to play for him. Everything that goes on from here on out is going to be dedicated to Coach P. He got us here. We're going to play for him no matter if he's watching it on TV, upstairs in the booth, whatever."
A total of 23 seniors were honored before playing their last home game and trying to stay unbeaten in the Big Ten. But the circumstances of the week made the emotions much more supercharged for Penn State than for any football game, no matter the magnitude.
In fact, maybe the Lions were a little too pumped, leading to their slow start on offense.
"I think emotions were too high and we couldn't keep them in check," quarterback Matt McGloin said. "I think that might have had something to do with it, and it took us a lot longer than we'd like to settle in and just get relaxed.
"Guys tend to get off and do their own thing, try to make a big play. It's part of the game. It happens and you've got to learn from it."
Trailing 17-0 on a 14-yard touchdown run by Rex Burkhead with 8 minutes, 51 seconds left in the third quarter, the Lions finally found their stride, and TDs of 5 and 6 yards by Green made it a three-point game with 5:42 to play.
But Penn State couldn't score again, losing the ball on downs at its 37 with 1:49 left, and reaching only the 46 on its final possession as time expired.
"Overall, I thought we did a good job," safety Drew Astorino said. "The students were inspiring. All the support we got from them, the support we got all week from former players, it's been really a sharing. I've never heard Beaver Stadium louder than it was today."
Nittany Notes. The Nittany Lions (8-2, 5-1 Big Ten) entered the game ranked 12th in the AP poll and the BCS standings. The Cornhuskers (8-2, 4-2) were 19th on both lists. . . . A total of 317 sideline passes were issued to past players who wanted to attend the game, and it appeared as if most were used. Penn State assistant athletic director for communications Jeff Nelson also said 589 media credentials were handed out for the game.
Contact staff writer Joe Juliano at 215-854-4494 or firstname.lastname@example.org