UNIVERSITY PARK — One of the most turbulent offseasons in college football history ended at 11:57 a.m. Saturday when Penn State players raced through the Beaver Stadium gates to face Ohio University.
Following the Blue Band and more than 600 student-athlete athletes represented the emotional highlight of an afternoon that ended with a 24-14 loss to the Bobcats.
“It was a great atmosphere for college football,” senior quarterback Matt McGloin said. “You couldn’t ask for anything more from the fans. We are definitely upset. But it showed how close-knit of a school we are.”
The game was Penn State’s first since the NCAA levied major sanctions against the school in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal. The NCAA’s assessment of Penn State proved harsh, with the organization using words such as a “football first” culture to describe the school.
A four-year postseason ban, $60 million fine, hefty scholarship reductions, transfer waiver and the vacating of 112 victories, including 111 accumulated by former coach Joe Paterno, are among the sanctions.
Signs of Paterno were difficult to find in the stadium besides the cardboard cutout of the former coach adorning the window of a luxury suite occupied by outspoken former running back Franco Harris. Paterno’s widow, Sue, attended the game with her daughter, Mary Kay.
Paterno had been part of Penn State’s coaching staff since 1949 before being fired last November. He died of lung cancer in January. Paterno coached the Nittany Lions to an 8-1 start in 2011. Former defensive coordinator Tom Bradley served as interim coach for four games, but the school passed him over for the job to hire Bill O’Brien. Only two members of Paterno’s final coaching staff, linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden and defensive line coach Larry Johnson, were retained by O’Brien.
“We had a lot of great times with Coach Paterno,” McGloin said. “We have Coach O’Brien now and he’s doing a tremendous, tremendous job. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get that win.”
Eleven players left the school in the wake of the sanctions. The players who stayed experienced riveting pregame scenes Saturday. More than 2,000 fans greeted the team’s four blue buses when they pulled in front of the stadium at 9:23 a.m. Coach Bill O’Brien walked into the stadium first, trailed by game captains Gerald Hodges, Jordan Hill, Derek Day and McGloin.
“It was a little bit different,” sophomore linebacker Mike Hull said. “Coming over to the stadium, there was a lot of fan support, people banging on the buses. It was a big crowd.”
Players said the past 10 months have strengthened the bond between the team and members of the Penn State community.
“This was ridiculous for me,” redshirt freshman offensive lineman Donovan Smith said. “It was my first game and I had a lot of jitters and what-not coming through that tunnel, having everybody yelling your name. You could feel the emotion.”
No formal tributes to Paterno were staged during the game.
Follow Guy Cipriano on Twitter@cdtguy.