Wisconsin vs. Penn State: Don't Write Eulogy for Nittany Lions Football Just Yet

Adam JacobiBig Ten Football Lead WriterNovember 24, 2012

The 2012 season is in the books for Penn State, and what a wild one it was.

From the gut punch of sanctions about a month before the season started to the flood of high-profile transfers to the 0-2 start of the season, it looked as if the odds would be just too great against the Nittany Lions this season.

And yet, in the face of that great adversity—indeed, it's hard to think of a tougher situation for a program since, say, SMU coming back from the death penalty—Penn State persevered. The players rallied. They worked their butts off.

And for that effort they proved something very, very important: Penn State can not only survive these sanctions, it can still be competitive.

That was perfectly evident on Saturday as Penn State outlasted a valiant effort from Wisconsin for a 24-21 overtime victory. With that win, PSU finished 8-4 on the season—and one game ahead of Wisconsin in the Leaders Division at 6-2 in-conference.

That, to say the least, is not what people expected from this Penn State team, especially after a start to the season that saw a 10-point loss at home to Ohio and a nightmarishly bad performance by Sam Ficken in an 18-17 loss to a bad Virginia team.

That sure didn't look like a team that was about to finish with eight wins on the year.

And yet here we are.

Emblematic of the Penn State resurgence this season was running back Zach Zwinak. Zwinak carried the ball 36 times for 179 yards and a score in PSU's win on Saturday; both his carries and yardage were career highs.

Zwinak was Penn State's first option in the second half of the season—and especially on Saturday. He certainly wasn't that first option coming into the season; at that point, he wasn't even a tailback.

That was Silas Redd—until he transferred to USC. Then it was Bill Belton—until he couldn't stay healthy. Then it was Derek Day—until he got hurt as well. Then it was Michael Zordich—but Zordich wasn't cut out for being a workhorse. Then it was Curtis Dukes—but Dukes never established himself either.

So it came to Zwinak, and the 6'1", 232-pound back from Frederick, MD, blossomed into a workhorse—another one of those strong, downhill runners that populated the Big Ten this year. He didn't put up Montee Ball-like numbers on the year, but when it came down to Zwinak and Ball on Saturday, Zwinak was the one who put the offense on his back and led his team to victory.

Yes, there are further scholarship restrictions waiting to hit Penn State. The Nittany Lions have to get their scholarship count down to 65 by the start of next season, and that's a significant disadvantage.

The thing is, though, Penn State is already under 70 scholarships, and while there's a pretty significant senior class that needs to be replaced, Bill O'Brien should be able to recruit well enough to deal with it.

Yes, Matt McGloin will be missed. So will Jordan Hill, Michael Mauti, Gerald Hodges, Michael Zordich and the other seniors. But everyone's going to be missing seniors—and it's not as if PSU is going to be debilitated on either offense or defense by its departures.

No, Penn State probably isn't going to challenge for a Leaders Division title in 2013, and there's no telling what'll happen from there.

But another winning season is absolutely in play, and for Penn State, that's all you can ask for.

This team isn't dying. Not even close. It's working its butt off, and it's working through these sanctions. Now the question isn't whether Penn State can survive the sanctions—it's how many more times it'll put up a winning record before it's back at full strength.

By the looks of things, this season wasn't an anomaly—it was a sign of things to come.