September 01, 2012

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- For most of the week it felt so familiar, so friendly, so normal.

More than 42,000 students arrived back at school after a summer of discontent, one full of uncertainty and disappointment about what was happening at their school. There was the usual enclave of tents set up outside Beaver Stadium before the first game of a new season. "Badlands" by Bruce Springsteen blared across the campus on a sunny summer afternoon. Outside the Bryce Jordan Center, people picked up their tickets for the 2012 schedule, which, again, included seven home games at the place known as Happy Valley.

This was the scene at Penn State as the Nittany Lions prepared for their season-opener against Ohio on Saturday afternoon. And this Ohio team returned 15 starters and five all-conference players, including All-MAC quarterback Tyler Tettleton, who threw 38 touchdown passes last year.

That should have been the first warning for the Nittany Lion faithful. Mix in the sense of uncertainty surrounding the team's mentality after 10 months of turmoil for a program which no longer has the Joe Paterno brand for the first time in 62 years, and everyone, including the Lions, wondered what team would charge out of the tunnel Saturday.

What the 97,816 fans (no, not a sellout) witnessed was neither stunning nor all that surprising after stepping out of the emotional cocoon that has been State College. Final score: Ohio 24, Penn State 14. The Bobcats won thanks to two second-half touchdowns from Tettleton (one rushing, one passing), which wiped out a 14-3 Nittany Lion halftime lead.

But the result was merely the final act of a strange week in an emotional 10-month stretch, a period that dates back to Paterno's firing in November. That timeline includes Paterno's death in January, the hiring of O'Brien from the New England Patriots and a near death penalty sentence for the program in July. The NCAA smacked Penn State with four years of probation, massive scholarship reductions and a whopping $60 million fine.

Saturday marked the official changing of the guard. It marked the end of the Paterno Penn State dynasty, and the beginning of the O'Brien era, which still remains in its infancy.

Things were different simply because Paterno was no longer the main act. But were they normal?

"We're trying to find out what the new normal is," said Malcolm Moran, Knight Chair in Sports Journalism and Society at Penn State, on Friday afternoon. "On the surface it seems normal, but it's not. But there will be 100,000 people out there on Saturday expecting things to be the way they were before.''

Then again, how could things be the same? After serving as the foundation of the school for the past 62 years, Paterno died in January from lung cancer.

During O'Brien's debut in Happy Valley, everyone could immediately see that some things were different. For the first time in Penn State history, players had their names stitched to the back of their uniforms -- the branding of this team as a group of loyal survivors. Instead of dressing in the football complex, the players dressed in Beaver Stadium. The students even camped out in Nittanyville, renamed from Paternoville as a way of moving forward.

"The bottom line is that no one here is proud of what went on,'' said senior R.J. Fazio, a senior architectural design major. "You have to recognize something bad happened here. This isn't a Penn State issue. This is a human issue. This could happen anywhere. But we have to move on.''

On Saturday, the Lions and their fans were ready to do just that. One fan, walking across the parking lot outside Beaver Stadium, wore a shirt which read "O'Brien's Lions.'' In a show of unity, more than 600 Penn State athletes -- representing 29 of the 31 varsity sports (the women's soccer and volleyball teams were traveling) -- stood on the field before the game with the band and 200 former Penn State football players.

More than anything else, the theme of We Are Penn State was re-emphasized.

Shortly before the noon kickoff, Paterno's widow, Sue, and her daughter, Mary Kay, arrived quietly and went to their private box at Beaver Stadium. They were seemingly content in their new roles as secondary Penn State supporters. Once again there was a Paterno presence, just as there had been for the past 62 seasons. But this time, it was also much different.

After a first-half flurry that included more good than bad, the game got away from the Lions. Ohio played more like Ohio State, and Penn State looked like a team in dire need of inspiration as well as direction.

Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin threw two touchdowns in the first half, but the second half belonged to Ohio. "We knew were going to take on a surge when we came here,'' said Ohio coach Frank Solich. "It was a surge from Penn State, from their fans, from the atmosphere. I told our players, just play. We turned it into just a football game in the fourth quarter.''

In the end, Ohio played like the better team. McGloin didn't play as well as Tettleton. But this loss was a group effort -- and the unity theme carried into the postgame interviews. "It starts with me," said O'Brien. "I've got to coach a lot better."

When pressed about the emotional portion of the of the week, and of the day, O'Brien budged, but just slightly. "I was excited to be with the kids," he said. "I was excited to lead them out on the field. I wish I did a better job during the game."

McGloin, a fifth-year senior who already has his undergraduate degree, was asked about the first game without JoePa. "I'm glad I played for coach Paterno,'' he said. "I love playing for Coach O'Brien."

Penn State safety Malcolm Willis, who was part of a defensive unit that allowed the Bobcats to pile up 499 yards of total offense, said the Lions' emotional levels were fine. "The problem was not in having to sustain our emotions," said Willis, "the problem was containing it."

As the Lions walked off the field to muted talk, two things were clear: They had done a better job containing their emotions than they had containing Ohio. And although it started with a loss, the O'Brien era -- finally -- was underway.

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