Amid upheaval, No. 20 PSU 1 win from title game
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP)
Yet for all the anger, tears and upheaval in Happy Valley following child sex abuse charges more than two weeks ago against retired assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, the 20th-ranked Nittany Lions find themselves in a remarkable position entering Saturday's regular-season finale at No. 15 Wisconsin.
One win secures Penn State (9-2, 6-1 Big Ten) the Leaders Division title and a berth in the inaugural conference championship game.
''I was in the equipment room the other day and some of the players were asking the equipment managers how they were doing,'' interim coach Tom Bradley said Tuesday at Beaver Stadium. The players ''are more concerned with how we're doing. They're a resilient group. They've stuck together. They've unified from this.''
Sticking with a team-first message, the Nittany Lions have vowed to try to block out the distractions and media frenzy that has enveloped Penn State since Sandusky was charged Nov. 5.
Hall of Fame coach Joe Paterno was fired four days later by school trustees - he had announced his retirement hours earlier and bid farewell to his team in an emotional meeting - and Bradley was picked to replace him. Paterno faced pressure from the state's top cop and university trustees for not having done more about a 2002 abuse allegation allegedly witnessed by a graduate assistant in the team showers than pass on the report to his superior.
The graduate assistant, Mike McQueary, is now the receivers coach but on administrative leave. Paterno has said specific details alleged to have occurred in a grand jury report about the Sandusky investigation were not relayed to him. Prosecutors have said Paterno isn't a target of a state investigation.
In the aftermath of Sandusky's arrest, the trustees, federal Department of Education and the NCAA have all said they are launching their own investigations.
Another shocker came last Friday, when Paterno's son, quarterback coach Jay Paterno, told Bradley on the team plane on the way to Ohio State that the 84-year-old Paterno had been diagnosed with a treatable form of lung cancer. Bradley said he hasn't spoken to his former boss since the diagnosis.
''He wants us focusing on going to school and going to class,'' right tackle Chima Okoli said. ''He doesn't want anyone going back to him. He doesn't want any sympathy.''
Astorino's family, including uncles and cousins, has helped guide him through this stormy period. He and the other current players have been caught by a scandal involving accusations that have nothing to do with them. Sandusky retired in 1999.
''I know my parents have been there, especially the last couple weeks,'' said Astorino, a senior. ''I've had more support than I've ever had.''
Nearly everyone Moye has encountered on campus wants to talk about the situation. He tunes out their questions.
''As far as being on the players' minds, it's not a big deal for us going out there,'' Moye said. ''We have goals that we set at the beginning of the year.''
One of those goals was winning the Big Ten championship. Back in the preseason, long before the program descended into turmoil, that idea seemed a little far-fetched.
Not with newcomer Nebraska and solid Michigan State ready to pounce in the Legends Division.
And certainly not with powerhouse Wisconsin seemingly on course to steamroll its way to the Leaders Division crown.
But the Badgers stumbled at midseason to Michigan State and Ohio State in back-to-back road games. Penn State, led by star tackle Devon Still and its stingy defense, has won a slew of close games to move into position to spoil Wisconsin's dream.
The Nittany Lions lost the school's first game without Paterno as head coach in nearly a half-century, a 17-14 defeat Nov. 12 to Nebraska, before beating the Buckeyes 20-14 last week to set up Saturday's showdown at Camp Randall Stadium.
Bradley said he's kept an open-door policy and tried to be as transparent as possible with players. A team captain, Still said the players, in turn, are trying to address any issues on their own as much as possible to help the popular Bradley through the crisis, too.
''He reminds us every day this is our team,'' said Still, named a finalist this week for postseason awards for the nation's top defensive player and interior lineman. ''We're just trying to handle as much as we can, so he has a lighter load.''
Still and his teammates see the practice field as a haven, a place where there's no choice but to focus on football and get ready for a game. There will be time, though, this week, for some lighter moments with Thanksgiving approaching and most other students away on break.
The Nittany Lions plan to watch the action flick, ''The Immortals,'' together Wednesday night before a traditional holiday turkey dinner on Thursday.
Follow Genaro C. Armas on Twitter at http://twitter.com/GArmasAP