Nebraska-Penn St. Preview
Joe Paterno walked off the Beaver Stadium field following Penn State's latest game having become the winningest coach in Division I history, his Nittany Lions surviving a last-second missed field goal to remain the Big Ten's lone conference unbeaten.
It turned out to be the final game of a legendary career that rapidly and shockingly crumbled.
Amid a horrific child-sex abuse scandal involving one of Paterno's former long-time assistants, the coach was fired by the university's trustees Wednesday, capping a stunning fall from grace that makes the 12th-ranked Nittany Lions' matchup with visiting No. 19 Nebraska on Saturday something of an afterthought.
Penn State (8-1, 5-0) survived an ugly offensive performance to beat Illinois 10-7 on Oct. 29, allowing Paterno to pass Eddie Robinson as the all-time Division I leader with 409 wins.
The Nittany Lions took the Big Ten's only perfect conference record into their bye, but what erupted during that week off shook not just the football program, but also the entire University Park, Pa., campus to its core.
News broke last Saturday that Jerry Sandusky, Paterno's defensive coordinator from 1977-99, was charged with sexually assaulting eight young boys over a 15-year period. Among the allegations was a 2002 incident in which then-graduate assistant Mike McQueary - currently the team's wide receivers coach - said he saw Sandusky assault a boy in the shower at the Nittany Lions' practice center.
Prosecutors said McQueary reported what he saw to Paterno, who immediately told Tim Curley, the school's athletic director.
Curley and Gary Schultz, Penn State's vice president for finance and business, later met with McQueary, but the incident was never reported to any law enforcement or child protective agency in accordance with state law.
Curley has taken a leave of absence and Schultz stepped down, and both surrendered on charges that they failed to alert police to the complaint.
McQueary was placed on administrative leave Friday, a day after the school had said he wouldn't coach this game because "multiple threats" had been made against him.
Paterno, while not implicated legally in the matter, announced Wednesday that he'd retire at the end of the season amid heavy criticism for not delving more into a situation that began in 1994. But the university trustees said later that they were ending his 46-year tenure immediately.
"I am disappointed with the Board of Trustees' decision, but I have to accept it," Paterno said in a statement.
Defensive coordinator Tom Bradley will serve as interim coach.
Penn State president Graham Spanier was also fired.
Paterno also issued a statement before his firing, saying he was "absolutely devastated" by the developments in the case.
"This is a tragedy," he said. "It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more."
In what promises to be a surreal Senior Day at Beaver Stadium, there's plenty at stake for a Lions team that has a surprising two-game lead in the conference's Leaders Division. Victories over Nebraska (7-2, 3-2) on Saturday and Ohio State next weekend would guarantee Penn State a spot in the inaugural Big Ten championship game - in which the winner receives the Stagg-Paterno trophy.
Cornhuskers coach Bo Pelini said he won't discuss with his team the potential distractions of the scandal taking place in Happy Valley.
He certainly isn't sure how it will affect his opponent.
"You have to be living there and I've got enough problems of my own," Pelini said Monday. "I can't comment on that. It seems to be an unfortunate situation and they're working through it the best they can."
Nebraska Chancellor Harvey Perlman said his school's participation in the game "in no way condones the conduct that has been alleged or makes a statement about the truth or falsity" of the allegations against Sandusky.
Nebraska went into last weekend with an excellent shot at winding up in Indianapolis as well, but suddenly finds itself needing help to win the Legends Division. The Cornhuskers, coming off a 24-3 win over Michigan State that put them in control of the division, fell 28-25 at home to 18-point underdog Northwestern.
"We got beat. It's that plain and simple," Pelini said. "They outplayed us, they outcoached us. What are you going to say? They won the football game. They deserve it. I give Northwestern a lot of credit. We didn't respond."
Nebraska gave up 468 yards to the high-powered Wildcats but isn't expected to have the same kind of defensive problems Saturday. The Nittany Lions are 10th in the Big Ten and 88th nationally in total offense, averaging 355.8 yards.
Penn State continues to alternate junior quarterback Matt McGloin with sophomore Rob Bolden despite McGloin's better numbers, but Nebraska's biggest concern should be Silas Redd. The sophomore tailback has averaged 140.6 yards per game since Oct. 1 - third-best in the nation.
Penn State, which has the country's eighth-ranked defense (282.3 ypg), also figures to focus on stopping the run. Nebraska is 5-0 when Rex Burkhead rushes for more than 100 yards and has lost its last two games when he didn't, including 69 on 22 carries against Northwestern though he did score his 15th touchdown.
The Nittany Lions, who have allowed two of their past three opponents to rush for more than 160 yards, are 46-1 since 2005 when holding teams under 100.
The teams, meeting for the first time as Big Ten rivals, haven't played since splitting a home-and-home series in 2002 and '03. Penn State won 40-7 in Beaver Stadium on Sept. 14, 2002, in front of the largest crowd in school history.