When the sun rose over Mount Nittany on Saturday morning, it had been 10 torturous months since Penn State last won a football game, and even longer since the Nittany Lions emerged victorious from Beaver Stadium.
Granted, in college football, 10 months isn’t all that long. Not with an eight-month offseason, anyway. But for most in and around the Penn State program, the wait to get back to football, to get back to winning — as they finally did with a 34-7 rout of Navy in front of 98,792 desperate fans — felt like an eternity.
Because in the time since that last home victory over Illinois last October, a win that was, then, the record-breaking 409th for legendary coach Joe Paterno, Penn State — the football program, the university and the community as a whole — has gone through the kind of hell you wouldn’t wish upon your most hated rival, albeit nothing close to what victims of Jerry Sandusky went through.
In that time, Sandusky made the ugly, humiliating and sickening public transformation from beloved former defensive coordinator and local philanthropist to incarcerated child molester.
Worse yet, the late Paterno, the undisputed king of Happy Valley, was determined to have helped, inasmuch as he did nothing to stop Sandusky from committing his crimes while some of the school’s most powerful appointed leaders assisted in the coverup.
Lost amid all this controversy, of course, was a group of innocent, overwhelmed college athletes who just wanted to focus on football; a new coach, Bill O’Brien, tasked with the impossible task of getting the program moving in a new, positive direction; and a loyal fanbase that just wanted to rally around them and let the team know that they’re still as revered as ever.
But through the first two weeks of the new, sobering era of Penn State football, the team had yet to provide itself and the community a diversion from the madness.
So when that sun rose over Mount Nittany on Saturday morning, there wasn’t a team in America in more desperate need of a win than Penn State, and finally — thankfully — they got one to move to 1-2 on the season.
“I’ve said this from Day 1 . . . I feel very close to this football team, as does our staff,” O’Brien said. “This is a great group of kids, and when you think about all the things that they’ve been through, at 18, 19, 20 years old, it’s a pretty neat group of kids. I don’t think in your coaching career, you’ll have a chance to be around many groups like this.”
Senior quarterback Matt McGloin threw for 231 yards and four touchdowns Saturday, with 136 yards and three of those scores going to sophomore wideout Allen Robinson. By halftime, the Nittany Lions had taken a 20-0 lead and topped their highest scoring output of the season.
In the second half, Penn State pushed the lead to 27-0 on a lucky touchdown catch by Robinson that deflected off a teammate’s helmet. The play seemed, in some ways, to represent the good fortune the Nittany Lions hope to find as they continue to distance themselves from the Sandusky scandal.
Later, Mike Hull’s 74-yard fumble return for a touchdown seemed like the fitting end to the first really good day for Penn State football in a long, long time.
“Winning cures a lot of things and winning also breeds confidence,” O’Brien said. “We didn’t play an unbelievably great game, but we played well enough to win, and these guys got confidence that when they lifted all those weights in the summer and we practiced the way we practice, that there’s a reward for that and that we can win and that we know how to win.”
Unfortunately, there may not be much more winning to be done this year — or in the years to come — for Penn State. Ravaged by the NCAA’s sanctions, which included a four-year postseason ban, the Nittany Lions program is likely to be crippled for at least the next two or three seasons, and possibly longer.
And that’s what made Saturday’s victory and the celebration that followed so special.
It was for the fans who have grown so accustomed to success, but know there will be little of it to come going forward. And it was for that coach, who willingly signed up for the toughest job in football, unafraid of the daunting challenge ahead.
“It’s more important for us to get it for Coach O’Brien than it is to get it for ourselves,” McGloin said. “He’s been through a ton so far and we have his back 110 percent and the support’s there for him.”
And it was for the players, McGloin included, who stuck around and stayed loyal to their school and their team and their brothers on the field, even though they had an easy out that no one would have blamed them for taking.
“When everything was said and everything came out and then Joe going and then passing away, everything was so hard,” senior defensive lineman Jordan Hill said. “We wanted to stick together as a team, but when we had guys trickling away, we didn’t know how to feel about it.”
Penn State’s players may not know what the future holds, and they may not have much to look forward to, but they knew how to feel when they dunked O’Brien with the Gatorade cooler, celebrating a Week 3 win like a national championship.
They knew how to feel when they rushed over to the student section after the game, arm in arm, singing the alma mater with a crowd that needed the win as much as they did.
“It was big,” Hill said of the celebration. “This is something I’ll remember forever.”