UNIVERSITY PARK — They are playing for a moment they cant wait to arrive.
After a winter filled with change, spring defined by new beginnings and wild summer, Penn State opens its season next Saturday against Mid-American Conference preseason favorite Ohio University at Beaver Stadium.
Veterans bracing for their last stand and newcomers eager to prove themselves fill coach Bill OBriens first roster.
The seniors are a hearty group featuring strong personalities such as quarterback Matt McGloin, linebacker Michael Mauti, center Matt Stankiewitch, cornerback Stephon Morris and fullback Michael Zordich, proven Big Ten performers in defensive tackle Jordan Hill and linebacker Gerald Hodges, and a pair of defensive ends in Sean Stanley and Pete Massaro looking for breakout seasons.
The senior class begins the season already etched in Penn State lore. They absorbed multiple blows to hold a team together.
The Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal, former coach Joe Paternos ouster and death, the introduction of eight new on-field coaches and major NCAA sanctions in the aftermath of the Freeh report yielded nine commotion-filled months.
The NCAAs transfer waiver caused immediate upheaval. Penn State lost 11 players from July 23 to Aug. 13. Nine, including 1,200-yard rusher Silas Redd (Southern California), No. 1 receiver Justin Brown (Oklahoma) and kicker/punter Anthony Fera (Texas), landed at other Division I schools. Brown was the lone senior to transfer.
Seniors will perform large portions of the defensive lifting this fall. Six projected starters Hill, Massaro, Stanley, Hodges, Mauti and Morris end their college careers Nov. 24 against Wisconsin at Beaver Stadium.
A four-year postseason ban is another major part of the NCAAs penalty. The ban eliminates Penn State from playing into December.
There is no question that we have a strong senior class, OBrien said. In many ways, they are a very mature group. They have a great understanding of what they need to do as leaders both on and off the field. It is a pretty neat group of guys to be around. I wish we had them for longer.
McGloin, Stankiewitch and Zordich are seniors projected to start on offense. With Redd and Brown gone, Stankiewitch is the only returning full-time offensive starter.
Unproven, yet energetic, players comprise the rest of the offense.
Juniors Adam Gress and John Urschel, sophomore Miles Dieffenbach and redshirt freshman Donovan Smith are projected to join Stankiewitch on the offensive line.
Juniors Shawney Kersey, Brandon Moseby-Fielder and Christian Kuntz, sophomores Allen Robinson and Alex Kenney, redshirt freshman Matt Zannellato, and true freshmen Eugene Lewis, Trevor Williams and Malik Golden are vying for time at wide receiver.
Junior Garry Gilliam and freshmen Kyle Carter and Jesse James lead a group of tight ends bracing for expanded roles.
Most of McGloins targets will have career afternoons against Ohio. Kersey, who grabbed five passes for 108 yards last season, is Penn States leading returning receiver.
Sophomore Bill Belton, a wide receiver and Wildcat quarterback in 2011, enters the season as the No. 1 tailback. True freshman Akeel Lynch is developing into one of the top backups.
Guys are stepping up, Stankiewitch said. The younger guys are having opportunities to step up and are doing that. They are showing who they are. Losing 10 offensive starters might not create the dire situation many outsiders are predicting. The Nittany Lions, after all, ranked 110th nationally by scoring 19.3 points per game last season. That unit included a veteran offensive line, experienced receivers and a nagging quarterback shuffle involving McGloin and Rob Bolden, who left for LSU after opening the past two seasons as a starter.
The schedule also might yield favorable matchups. The non-conference quartet of Ohio, Virginia, Navy and Temple isnt a guaranteed-win-smorgasbord, but Alabama has taken its two BCS titles in three years elsewhere.
The Nittany Lions play Big Ten Leaders Division bullies Wisconsin and Ohio State at Beaver Stadium and avoid Legends Division co-favorites Michigan State and Michigan.
The secondary, which must replace four starters and lacks depth, is a major concern. But Penn State doesnt face a passing offense that ranked in nations Top 30 last season.
The biggest road test is Nov. 10 at Nebraska.
Maybe the moment doesnt look so grim.
Guy Cipriano can be reached at 231-4643. Follow him on Twitter @cdtguy