Players try to focus on game, not scandal
College football players are taught that the games are the focal point. It's what they do all week, build to a crescendo for Saturday.
When the real world intrudes, it's difficult to put the distractions in a box, go out on a field and keep score.
But that's precisely what Penn State's players plan on doing.
''You have to. I mean, what are we going (to do), come out and lose all of our games because of this?'' offensive tackle Chima Okoli said Wednesday. ''You know what I mean? At the end of the day, you have to own up as a man and take care of responsibilities and that's what we're going to do.''
In the midst of a scandal revolving around a former assistant coach having sex with young boys - and the coverup that followed - Penn State's players will try to put aside a world of distractions and play a game against Nebraska on Saturday.
Joe Paterno, the Nittany Lions' coach since 1966, told the players in a team meeting on Wednesday that he would step down at the end of the year. Other administrators and coaches are likely to be cut loose as well.
The players, meanwhile, will do their jobs. That means to play games at home against Nebraska, at Ohio State and at Wisconsin over the next three weekends.
They were left to try to figure it all out while hanging onto some sense of normalcy by following their weekly routine of practice leading up to a game. Although there will not be much normal or routine about anything from now on.
''It is difficult, obviously,'' safety Drew Astorino said. ''We'd much rather not have to deal with these distractions and just focus on the team and focus on this game. But this is something we have to do.''
He has no worries that the Nittany Lions will come undone from a week of allegations, admissions and embarrassments.
''I think we're going to be OK on the field,'' Astorino said. ''I love playing with these players, I trust these players, I care about these players more than I care about anybody right now. I think we're going to come together as a unit, as a group of guys, as we have done so far throughout a tough week. Saturday, that's exactly what we'll need to do and what we'll be able to do.''
On his Twitter account, Nittany Lions quarterback Matt McGloin tried to compartmentalize the crazy things happening outside the locker room.
''i do not expect this dilema to alter our level of focus and accountability. Last home game of the year!! lets do it,'' he wrote.
Under normal circumstances, this had the makings of a happy weekend in Happy Valley. The 12th-ranked Nittany Lions, usually the pride of the campus, are having a banner year at 8-1 overall and leading the Big Ten's Leaders Division with a 5-0 record. This is Nebraska's first trip to State College as a member of the Big Ten. The game also marks Senior Day, a last chance for the faithful at Beaver Stadium to say thanks to those playing their final home game.
On Tuesday, while fighting through a mob of reporters to drive his father to Penn State's practice, Scott Paterno was asked how the coaching icon was feeling.
''He's getting ready for a football game!'' he said, thoroughly exasperated.
Getting ready for a game, particularly for college kids aged 18 to 22, is never easy in the midst of such titanic change.
Eric LeGrand, a junior defensive tackle, fractured the C3 and C4 vertebrae in his neck while making a tackle on a kickoff in the waning moments of Rutgers' game against Army on Oct. 16, 2010. He was paralyzed below the shoulders.
The very next week, the Scarlet Knights had to play at Pittsburgh. And his teammates, their minds elsewhere, had to take the field.
''Outside of football all of us are thinking about Eric,'' Rutgers defensive end Jonathan Freeny said. ''But once we step on the field, get to the top of the stairs ... it's all about football. Once we get back off the field Eric is back in our thoughts.''
It's clearly difficult for players to shove aside bigger issues to play a game.
It was an entirely different set of circumstances at Ohio State, where NCAA problems led to coach Jim Tressel's forced resignation, star quarterback Terrelle Pryor leaving for the NFL a year early and several players being suspended for accepting improper benefits. Every day throughout this past summer, there seemed to be another revelation, another humiliation.
One of the Buckeyes, punter Ben Buchanan, has an idea what the players at Penn State are going through this week. He said all the problems in the offseason made it much easier than having something blow up in the midst of a season with a big game just days away - as is the case with the Nittany Lions.
''It gave our team a chance to really kind of assess the situation as a whole. It gave us a chance to have some leaders emerge when some of our leaders were, sadly, taken away from us,'' he said this week. ''Just looking at Penn State, I know they'll have to have a quick turnaround with everything that's happened with them.''
McGloin was trying his best to address the Nebraska game and not everything else that everyone else was talking about.
''I cant comment on what is going on with these allegations and scandal which has spread throughout the university,'' he tweeted. ''But i can promise this. We will continue to fight towards our goal, a Big 10 championship.''
Okoli said the responsibility to regroup lies with the kids, not the adult coaches. He said he and his teammates would have to make the best of a bad situation.
''In times like this, where you have outside distractions, all we can do is come together,'' he said. ''All we have is each other.''
Follow Rusty Miller on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/rustymillerap .