STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Only a few feet away from the huge gates they ran through with so much excitement a few hours before, the Penn State defenders lined up along their own goal line for their last stand at recording the school's first official win since 1997. The home fans, resolute in urging their team to a win after all the indignities of the last year, rose to a full deafening shout as the opposing quarterback yelled out a play. Then a pass floated into the air and fell into the corner of the end zone.
And the crowd went quiet.
Moments later, the Nittany Lions walked off the field in silence. They were 0-1.
For months, this team and this program waited to turn the page and launch a new era. In many ways, that was accomplished Saturday with Bill O'Brien's first game as head coach. The players, classy and steadfast throughout an impossible ordeal after the conviction of former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky of child sexual abuse charges, gave an inspiring effort under the hot Pennsylvania sun. But Saturday's 24-14 loss to Ohio makes it clear that Penn State is now a team that's much like its school: caught in a purgatory between a difficult past and what it can only hope to be a healthier future.
There was no official commemoration for Joe Paterno on Saturday in Beaver Stadium, but signs of the late coach – both metaphorical and literal – were everywhere. Paterno's widow, Sue, showed up at the stadium 15 minutes before kickoff. Asked for her feelings on such a momentous day, she replied that she "just wants us to win." Son and former assistant coach Jay Paterno was at the game as well, sending out a few tweets, talking about all the negative tweets he's received and telling another reporter he came to the game because, "Where else would I be?"
And former Penn State great Franco Harris, perhaps the most visibly loyal Paterno player, sat in his suite above the field next to a cardboard cutout of the coach with a sign that said, "Due Process For PSU JVP."
Even before the game, outside the stadium, a fan built a makeshift memorial for Paterno not far from where the statue of the coach was famously removed over the summer. The fan placed a Joe Paterno bobblehead doll in the grass and laid a bouquet of flowers at its feet. Fans surrounded the doll and snapped photos, some wearing Paterno shirts commending his career and their belief that he is "more than a man, more than a coach."
And most climactically, after the game, after O'Brien blamed himself over and over again for his first loss as a head coach, a reporter asked him what he thought "Joe" would have thought of this game.
O'Brien peered at the questioner from under the brim of his cap and said, "I have no idea."
Joe Paterno was larger than life, and now he is larger than death. It will take more than a few games – maybe more than a few seasons – to truly turn the page. That has been clear for awhile and became clear again hours before Saturday's game even started. As was the tradition under Paterno, Penn State players arrived on blue buses with fans lined up along Porter Road to cheer them on. But this was a little bit different: Instead of taking the ride in their game pants, carrying their pads and jerseys, O'Brien's players rode in suits and changed at the stadium. And as anyone who watched the game knows, the iconic blue and white Penn State jerseys now have surnames for the first time. That's a way to give this team a sense of ownership of this program – an honor they deserve after going through months of scandal and sanctions. But the symbolism is more than that: It's O'Brien chipping away at what's old, and slowly carving out something new. Along one end zone wall Saturday, fans plastered a huge sign: "B.O.B. The Re-Builder."
On the field, the changes are more than cosmetic. Although the team lost, the offense showed a crispness during parts of the first half that was mostly lacking in the last few years under Paterno. The Nittany Lions only scored 14 points, but if not for fumbles and miscues due to rust or nerves, Penn State would have won this game. Then the sense of a dawn would have been much stronger.
But at the same time, it's impossible to witness the sharp plays made on defense – big hits, emotional stops and a blocked punt – and not think of Paterno. He created Linebacker U. He was the one who won national championships with NFL-ready defenders. O'Brien is an offensive mind; Paterno was known for defense. Specifically: Jerry Sandusky's defense.
What will the first game under O'Brien be remembered for? In the record books, it will be remembered as a painful loss to a MAC team – another setback for a program that has lost a leader, a chance at a bowl, scholarships, talented players to transfer and dozens of wins to NCAA sanctions. It will be remembered not only for missed opportunities on the field, but also the wonder of whether such a close game would have turned if Penn State hadn't lost the players it did.
Yet for Penn State guard John Urschel, it will also be remembered for the way fans screamed for the team from beginning to end. The New York native started to choke up as he described it after the game. "It's an honor," Urschel said. "I'll remember all the support we had. It means the world to us."
Asked after the game what's kept the team from showing frustration during a year of bad news and negative feedback, tight end Matt Lehman thought for a long moment and said, "We're playing for each other."
This team has been molded by Joe Paterno. It continues to be molded by Bill O'Brien. But for better and for worse, whether the Nittany Lions win or lose, this team is going to have to go through a grueling season and find a way to construct an identity that is completely its own.
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