Penn State Football

Penn State football: Nittany Lions, Cornhuskers meet a year after emotional game

So many questions. So many memories.

Today marks the one-year anniversary of one of the most stunning events in Penn State history — former football coach Joe Paterno’s ouster.

The firing came three days before Paterno, the winningest Division I coach at the time, was expecting to lead an 8-1 team into Beaver Stadium to face Nebraska. The firing also came four days after former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky’s first arrest on child sex abuse charges and two days after athletic director Tim Curley and former vice president for finance Gary Schultz’s arraignment on perjury and failure to report charges.

Without Paterno holding the title as head coach for the first time since 1965, the Nittany Lions fell 17-14. Penn State lost three of its final four games under interim coach Tom Bradley to end the season 9-4.

The week started a major overhaul of Penn State’s football program that continued with Bill O’Brien becoming Paterno’s permanent successor on Jan. 6, 2012. O’Brien hired seven new coaches, implemented a pro-style offense and endured a massive roster overhaul following last summer’s announcement of major NCAA sanctions against the school.

Twenty-three current Nittany Lions appeared in last year’s Nebraska game. Perhaps no group of major-college football players has experienced a more chaotic year.

“We are resilient,” senior cornerback Stephon Morris said. “That’s one word I would use. We have been through a lot. Everybody knows that. We aren’t going to keep harping on it or go back to the past. We are a bunch of fighters.”

The off-the-field circumstances surrounding last year’s game made for an emotional Saturday afternoon.

After discussions involving the merits of playing the game, the Nittany Lions and Cornhuskers attracted a season-high crowd of 107,903 fans to Beaver Stadium. Players and coaches from both teams participated in a chilling pregame prayer vigil. A large part of the crowd wore blue to raise awareness for child abuse victims. Nebraska then opened a 17-0 lead it never relinquished.

“That was a crazy time,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. “There were a lot of emotions flowing through me that day, and, obviously for them, I couldn’t even imagine. That was a unique experience being part of. Obviously, it’s a game. This was a tragedy that’s a lot bigger than a football game.”

Sandusky was convicted on 45 counts of child sex abuse last summer. He was sentenced to 30 to 60 years in prison last month. Curley and Schultz’s trials are scheduled to begin in January.

Paterno died of lung cancer on Jan. 22, 2012. O’Brien, a first-year head coach, inherited the tricky task of following Paterno, who helped build Penn State into one of the nation’s most successful and popular programs.

Earlier this week, a reporter asked senior linebacker Michael Mauti about playing for O’Brien and Paterno. Mauti, a fifth-year senior whose father and older brother played at Penn State, is a vocal supporter of both coaches.

“First of all, I don’t think we have enough time for all those comparisons,” Mauti said. “Two totally different coaches, two different philosophies and you can write a book. Obviously, two great coaches. We have a lot of respect for them.

“Coach O’Brien has been our leader throughout this whole process. I wouldn’t want any other coach. I don’t think any coach could do as good of a job as he has done putting the whole program together, the whole athletic department together. What else do you want from a guy that has come in here and inherited this situation?”

Because he was working for the New England Patriots last year, O’Brien’s Nebraska-related images are forged through studying 2012 film. This year’s Cornhuskers are 7-2, feature an explosive offense and might represent the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl. O’Brien has guided his team to a 6-3 start.

For some of his players, it’s impossible to prepare for an opponent wearing red and white and not think about last year’s ordeal. Quarterback Matt McGloin, who completed 16 of 34 passes for 193 yards in last year’s game, said the past 12 months have strengthened individuals.

“Now that I’m in my fifth year at Penn State, I have definitely been through the ups and downs,” he said. “I have been through pretty much everything you can with being a student-athlete. We have overcome many different types of adversity here at the university. We are just learning to deal with things as a human being, learning how to make them better and be a better person.”