Saturday's football game was a first in so many ways for Penn State.
It was the first game of the 2012 season. It was the first game played after Joe Paterno passed away. It was the first game of a new era under coach Bill O’Brien, and the first game in Penn State athletic history in which a Nittany Lions team was subject to onerous NCAA sanctions.
It was also the first football game since Jerry Sandusky was put behind bars.
I was apprehensive about it, as I imagine many fans were. I just was not sure how it would feel to be in Beaver Stadium again after the horrible events of these last nine months. Tears welled up in me as the team entered the field at the pep rally on Friday night.
But at the game itself, it felt good to be in the stands again among a crowd of enthusiastic Nittany Lion supporters. People seemed intent on showing their support for these athletes who chose to re-commit themselves to Penn State.
Both on Friday at the pep rally and on Saturday, I was also impressed by the “One Team” solidarity message conveyed by all those involved in intercollegiate athletics at Penn State. At the pep rally, coaches from numerous sports teams pumped up the crowd. At the game itself, more than 600 varsity student-athletes took the field wearing grey “One Team” T-shirts. They formed a welcoming line for the football team and O’Brien as they entered the field.
There was a message there beyond the rallying call of “One Team.” To me, the message to fans and especially to the media was the sheer number of individuals who are supported by the revenue produced by Penn State football. Penn State has only two sports that are profitable enough to support other intercollegiate athletics: football and men’s basketball.
That’s true not only at Penn State, but at almost any major college athletic program you can name.
So when Dr. Mark Emmert desires to eliminate Penn State’s “football culture,” whatever that is, or when the media or other individuals continue to talk about how it would have been so much more “just” for Penn State to receive the death penalty, it was good for Penn State to try to send a message about the number of athletes supported by Penn State football revenues.
Whether the media receives or conveys the message, though, is a big question. Did they? I was not watching the game on TV, nor did we record it.
The idea that Penn State has a “football culture” that dominates everything at the school, including academics, has been an affront to so many people, including me as a member of Penn State’s faculty who is asked to report on the academic progress of any scholarship athlete three times each semester.
It is mystifying to me how such a conclusion could have been reached as a result of the Sandusky scandal, which had nothing to do with academics. In fact, today’s Centre Daily Times published an article that debunks the accusations made publicly by former vice president of student affairs Dr. Vicki Triponey regarding favoritism toward football players in relation to off-the-field conduct.
Will the media pick up on this article the way they picked up on Dr. Triponey’s accusations? I challenge ESPN and the Bleacher Report to do just that!
My view is that Penn State has always been a model for the interplay between athletics and academics, and the NCAA’s own statistics on graduation rates and the lack of specific NCAA rules violations committed by Penn State coaches and student-athletes prove that. Throughout the day at Beaver Stadium, Penn State chose to display some of those statistics. Was it sending another message to the media? Did they even notice?
I also find it distressing that Penn State feels it necessary to take the offensive in defending itself about something that has been a tremendous source of pride for Penn State for so many years and been so much a part of former head coach Joe Paterno’s legacy.
But perhaps it was good to remind the fans of what has made Penn State so special over the years.
But let’s get to this game against Ohio University. It did not surprise me that we lost. In fact, I had anticipated that Ohio would be one of Penn State’s toughest non-conference opponents this year.
What surprised me was the way we lost. I was expecting the offense to struggle. Not only was O’Brien introducing a very complicated offensive scheme, Penn State had lost its star running back Silas Redd and kicker/punter extraordinaire Anthony Fera. It’s hard to win games when your running game is in trouble. So I was happy when at the end of the first half Penn State was ahead 14-3.
It’s hard to win games, also, when your kicker does not have enough of a leg for the coach to try a field goal from the 30-yard line. At least that's why I assume the coach decided to go for it on 4th-and-5 with a pass when we were ahead 14-10.
I suppose coach O’Brien might have just been playing aggressively in the third quarter, knowing there was plenty of time left at that point in the game. He warned us he would be aggressive! But it seemed to me a play that defied logic. Don’t you always take the points if you can get them?
No, what surprised me was what appeared to be a complete defensive collapse in the second half. Penn State had not lost much talent on defense, and we had an experienced squad. The defense was able to hold Ohio to just a field goal in the first half, and I was feeling pretty good about that.
But in the third quarter, Ohio drove down the field twice and picked apart Penn State’s defense along the way. These drives consisted of short gains, no big plays: 12 plays for 82 yards; eight plays for 70 yards. Basically, the defense was beaten up on the line of scrimmage.
Still, with Ohio leading 17-14 after scoring two touchdowns in the third quarter, Penn State was a little behind but could still win. A big defensive play, or a decent offensive drive, and the Nittany Lions could get ahead again.
The fourth quarter looked a bit more promising when the defense held Ohio to a field-goal attempt and the kicker missed. But Penn State’s offense made two first downs and then stalled. A punt downed at the 7-yard line gave Ohio a long field and the defense could not stop the Bobcats from chewing up the clock.
With 2:47 left in the game and a 10-point deficit, it was unlikely that this offense was going to produce any NFL-type miracles. And it didn’t.
As for the defense, perhaps the new schemes taught by defensive coordinator Ted Roof were harder for this team to learn than we expected.
Or maybe Ohio was the better team on Saturday. The Bobcats made the right half-time adjustments and got some big plays, and Penn State didn’t. Ohio deserves our congratulations and respect.
Coach Joe Paterno used to say that a team makes its most progress between its first and second games. So we will see what adjustments the coaches make for the Virginia game. I am sure they have learned a lot about how their players react in a true game situation.
As for the crowd at the game, most people stayed until that final touchdown. The crowd was noisy and tried its best to help the defense do its job whenever Ohio was driving.
I was glad to see the student section actually be mostly filled at the start of the game. The loss was disappointing, but as I exited the stadium, I talked to several Ohio fans and expressed my respect for how their team played the game. Every Ohio fan told me how well they were treated by the Penn State fans they met.
That was good to hear. Penn State has to rebuild its reputation on so many levels. Being a place that visiting team fans will talk about as fun to visit is one way to send a message that Penn State in fact represents one of the best environments anywhere in college football and intercollegiate athletics.
I started this post discussing “firsts.” In addition to the firsts that affected all Penn State fans, I had a personal first. It was the only time in the 25 years I have been married to my husband Terry that I have not sat beside him for a game at Beaver Stadium. I kept imagining his comments throughout the game, especially: “It’s going to be a long season."
But we’ll see. It’s one loss so far, not an entire season.
I will get to that story in a different post. It’s a happy story, involving three PSU fans from Nebraska and the need to find an extra seat, not a sad story at all. However, my photos showing the “view from the stands” at Beaver Stadium are taken from quite a different location in the stadium than usual.
Note: If you are reading this post in the Centre Daily Times or the Bleacher Report, you can see those photos on my regular blog, www.viewfromstands.blogspot.com