The grave for Penn State football was supposed to have been dug on July 23, 2012, as the NCAA handed out its sanctions against the Nittany Lions. Yet, after two full seasons, the program is still standing and defying all the odds on and off the field.
Rather than licking the wounds of 65 scholarship players, just 15 scholarships to recruit for and no postseason once again, Penn State football has put up back-to-back winning seasons—going a combined 15-9 the past two seasons (8-4 and 7-5, respectively).
Both of those seasons came on the heels of the NCAA allowing any player to leave the program without penalty. Fifteen players ended up leaving, with the most significant pieces leaving in running back Silas Redd and wide receiver Justin Brown.
Again, PSU was supposed to be done and dusted as a program—its chances of survival went with Redd and Brown.
Instead, Penn State found plenty of talent in "fill-ins" named Zach Zwinak and Allen Robinson.
Zwinak has amassed 1,989 yards and 18 touchdowns over the last two seasons, while Robinson has been spectacular himself—grabbing 174 receptions, having back-to-back years over 1,000 yards receiving and catching 17 touchdowns.
There is no doubt that the NCAA sanctions have hurt this program. Depth was a major concern this season, with injuries piling up early on, and the team was eventually left with 61 scholarship players on the roster.
Under the supposed crippling weight of the NCAA sanctions, the fact that Penn State hasn't taken its ball and packed it in until the storm passes is a feat worth celebrating.
Penn State has kept fighting till the end, pulling off an upset over No. 15 ranked Wisconsin in Camp Randall to end the 2013 season for good measure.
The kids who had nothing to do with what got them to this point have taken it upon themselves to find ways to motivate each other and dig in together.
All of that points to the leadership of the seniors of 2012 and to that of their head coach—Bill O'Brien.
His Penn State tenure has had NFL rumors swirling around it nearly since the start, and they aren't stopping this offseason either.
It hasn't affected this program nearly as much as one would expect—not on the field, in the stands or on the all-important recruiting trail.
On the recruiting front, things haven't been hampered much by the lack of scholarships, either.
According to 247sports, Penn State currently has the third-ranked class in the Big Ten and is No. 18 nationally.
That wasn't supposed to happen, at least not after the sanctions were handed down. Rivals.com Midwest recruiting analyst, Josh Helmholdt, had this to say following the handing down of sanctions:
Kids want to go to college to play in championship games and the postseason. Now that it's been taken off the table, it's just going to absolutely destroy Penn State's recruiting ability in the short term. Certainly, when you reduce scholarships, that hurts recruiting because you can't recruit as many players. But when you're talking about how kids view Penn State as a potential place to play football, not having a chance to play in the postseason for pretty much the duration or a large chunk of their career is going to be a huge, huge deterrent.
Yet, a year after landing and keeping prized quarterback Christian Hackenberg, the Nittany Lions are at it again. In the 2014 class, they've added five four-star recruits (according to 247sports) out of an 18-man class.
Included in those four-star recruits are one of the top defensive tackles in the country, Thomas Holley, along with two top 35 wide receivers in Chris Godwin and De'Andre Thompkins.
Next season, the sanctions begin to ease a bit, and by the time this group is done with its postseason ban, it will be back to full-strength on the recruiting trail as well.
The results on and off the field are hard to argue with, and it suggests that with a special coach, the right mix of players and the support of a fanbase, a team can overcome some pretty big hurdles.
Now, with year three of this era approaching, the real trick will be seeing whether or not the players Bill O'Brien has brought in can keep that atmosphere alive and well and if the coach can stay around, too.
If so, Penn State may just come out of this dark period stronger than it went in to it.
*Andy Coppens is Bleacher Report's lead writer for the Big Ten. You can follow him on Twitter: @ andycoppens.
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