To say the Penn State football program has been through a lot in the past 12 months would be a dramatic understatement.
The program has seen a child abuse scandal involving a former defensive coordinator, the firing and death of its most prominent coach and crippling NCAA sanctions to boot. Throw in a new coach, diminished expectations in 2012, and the Nittany Lions have been in the public eye for seemingly all the wrong reasons.
Facing unprecedented adversity and challenges before the 2012 season even began, the team banded together and took the field on September 1, 2012 against Ohio University at Beaver Stadium hoping to just play football, for the first time in eight long months. After a quick start, the emotions of the moment took over the Lions after halftime, and they squandered a 10-point lead in losing to the Bobcats 24-14 in Bill O’Brien’s first game as coach. With their heads held high, the Lions accepted defeat and vowed to get better.
But adversity was awaiting the team yet again as they traveled to Virginia the following week. The Penn State defense played outstanding led by an inspiring effort from senior linebacker Michael Mauti, but the Lions were dealt heartbreak as kicker Sam Ficken missed four field goals on the afternoon -including one in the final seconds- to send the Lions to 0-2.
With pundits pegging the Lions as a four-win team after its disappointing start and faced again with more questions than answers, the Lions turned to their new leader -O’Brien- to guide them through more heartbreak. The man chosen to lead Penn State football out of the dark talked to his players of the hardship in losing the two biggest games of his football life, two Super Bowls with the New England Patriots. He told his players that to keep believing was essential, and that everything would have a way of working itself out. Just as the players had done from last November on through the end of their last season: they just kept playing.
Back in the friendly confines of Beaver Stadium in Happy Valley the following weekend, O’Brien decided to unleash his Lions. Senior quarterback Matt McGloin led an aerial assault with four touchdowns and the Lions pounded Navy, 34-7. The best part, though, was that the loudest cheers came not from a touchdown -but from a field goal from maligned kicker Sam Ficken-in the second quarter. After the final whistle, players gathered near the band to sing Penn State’s Victory song. As the players swayed back and forth with the sun setting picturesquely behind them, all was right in Happy Valley.
After a week of riding the high of their first win of the season, the Lions welcomed in-state rival Temple to town. While the Lions handled the Owls in three-straight years, Temple played Penn State tough in each game. This time around would be no different. The Lions stuffed a potent Temple ground game and grinded out a tough 24-13 win. Just like that the Lions evened their record at 2-2.
Riding the momentum of a two-game winning streak, the Lions found some extra motivation going into their Big Ten conference opener at Illinois. After the NCAA announced the severe sanctions for the Nittany Lions this summer, coaches invaded the Penn State campus hoping to convince players to leave the program. One of the coaches was Illinois’ Tim Beckman. Then Bill O’Brien had to stand pat while Beckman tried to pry his players away, but this time around, O’Brien -and his players- could answer back. They metaphorically punched Illinois in the mouth with a 21-0 halftime lead before laying the Illini down easy in the second half, winning the game comfortably 35-7. O’Brien called the win, “Sweet,” citing a fast start in the Big Ten as the prize. But we all knew what he really meant.
The next challenge came calling in the form of a visit from No. 24 and undefeated Northwestern, looking for their first 6-0 start in more than 50 years. A challenge for most, it’s just the status quo for this group of Nittany Lions. Penn State faced Northwestern’s productive run game with its stingy defense and frustrated the Wildcats early, taking a 10-0 lead. But nothing comes easy, and the Wildcats rallied to take a lead heading into the fourth quarter. Facing an 11-point deficit with less than 10 minutes remaining, Matt McGloin turned in an incredible comeback in his finest hour as the Nittany Lions’ starting quarterback to date. The result: 22 unanswered points in just over nine minutes and a four-game winning streak.
This week the Lions find themselves without a challenge. A much needed bye week awaits them. It’s a chance to catch their breath, take some time to process all that they’ve accomplished in six weeks this season. While the wins are impressive (and they are), after everything this group has been through over the past year, it’s amazing that they’re able to actually play games. All the emotions, the highs and lows; have to be exhausting.
But it’s easy to be amazed by this group, this team, these Lions…after all, it does happen every week. Enjoy the ride.