UNIVERSITY PARK — Penn State’s offseason begins five weeks earlier than usual and includes recruiting battles on two fronts.
The challenges facing the Nittany Lions didn’t end with Saturday’s rousing 24-21 overtime victory over Wisconsin at Beaver Stadium. The brunt of major NCAA sanctions begins hitting today when the coaching staff returns to work.
Instead of relying on just 10 coaches, the program can lean on 31 former players toting powerful stories.
Penn State can’t bring in more than 15 scholarship players next fall, although the program can negate the losses through high school, prep school or junior college prospects enrolling in January. Early enrollees count against 2012, not 2013, recruiting numbers. Penn State’s competitors can bring in as many 25 scholarship players next fall.
The unsettling NCAA transfer waiver also poses conundrums. The waiver permits existing players to play immediately elsewhere instead of sitting out a season. Players have until the start of 2013 preseason drills to make a decision. The program has lost 12 scholarship players since the NCAA the sanctions were announced last July.
A large, determined senior class held most of the 2012 roster together, allowing the program to reach eight wins for the seventh time in the past eight seasons.
And the group isn’t done helping Penn State.
The program is facing three more years of a postseason ban and scholarships will be capped at 65 for a four-year period beginning in 2014. Senior defensive tackle Jordan Hill called this past season a “blueprint” for how younger players can handle the sanctions.
“They can look back at this season and everything that we have been through,” Hill said. “One team has been through this already. We have to push forward. I believe in all the young guys. We are going to keep this train moving.”
Penn State’s season nearly derailed at multiple points, including when it left the depot. The Nittany Lions started 0-2, losing to Ohio University and Virginia, a pair of teams that struggled as 2012 progressed.
Five straight victories set up a showdown against Ohio State at a packed Beaver Stadium, but Ohio State dominated the second half and Penn State dropped to 5-3.
Two weeks later, a controversial goal-line fumble call contributed to a crushing loss at Nebraska. The Nittany Lions rebounded by winning their final two games. Penn State trailed Wisconsin 14-7 at halftime, opened a 21-14 lead, allowed a game-tying touchdown with 18 seconds left and won an overtime kicking duel.
The finale started with a ceremony honoring the senior class. It ended with the group vowing the program remains as resilient as ever.
“There’s nothing that can break this place,” senior defensive end Pete Massaro said. “This place is like the opposite of fragile, whatever it may be. It’s going to take a hell of a lot to be be able to break this place, and after what we went through and what this program went through, I don’t think there’s anything that can put a stop to what’s been started here.
“Who knows? There might be some difficult times. But everybody who comes here is a high-character person with a lot or pride. I have no doubt these underclassmen are going to keep moving the yardstick forward and do a great job.”
Defeating a Wisconsin team that meets Nebraska in this weekend’s Big Ten title game could provide a recruiting boost. Only five Big Ten programs — Ohio State (12-0), Nebraska (10-2), Northwestern (9-3), Penn State (8-4) and Michigan (8-4) — won eight regular-season games.
Rutgers (9-2), which lost to Pitt this past weekend, is the lone BCS conference school in the Northeast or Mid-Atlantic with more than eight victories. Syracuse has seven wins and West Virginia and Virginia Tech own six. Pitt and Connecticut, which are 5-6, need wins in their finales to become bowl eligible. Maryland, Virginia, Boston College and Temple are eliminated from bowl consideration.
Defensive coordinator Ted Roof, who has recruited in three BCS conferences, said collecting eight wins is a “big deal.”
“It gives us some momentum going into the offseason,” he said. “You look at some of our close ballgames, and you hate to do that right now, but we won eight of our last 10 games. I think that’s a real credit to our seniors, the way they lead and their heart.”
Linebackers coach Ron Vanderliden, one of the staff’s top recruiters, smiled when asked about the importance of finishing 8-4.
“It helps to win,” he said. “Going 6-2 in the Big Ten and beating one of the teams playing in the Big Ten championship game helps.”
Men such as Roof and Vanderlinden bring a veteran presence to external recruiting battles. Some recruiting rookies are already helping Penn State handle the internal battles.
“Hopefully they all stay,” senior cornerback Stephon Morris said. “The foundation is just stay together, love each other, don’t let anyone break you up no matter what they throw at you. Even if they throw more sanctions, keep fighting.”
Follow Guy Cipriano on Twitter @cdtguy.