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Penn State players prepping for game amid shock of scandal


STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- They'll still play a football game here Saturday. While that game's importance pales in comparison to the events unfolding elsewhere in town, more than 100,000 will gather, two teams will play and millions will watch on television.

Some talk radio screamers and talking heads have suggested Penn State cancel the game because of the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal -- which has claimed the jobs of iconic Nittany Lions coach Joe Paterno and Penn State president Graham Spanier and resulted in perjury charges for Penn State athletic director Tim Curley and former vice president Gary Schultz. Some have suggested the Nittany Lions should cancel the rest of the season.

That's foolish. Penn State's football players had no role in this. Most were in elementary school in 1998, when Sandusky was first investigated by police. Most were in middle school in 2002, when, according to a grand jury report, then-graduate assistant Mike McQueary witnessed Sandusky sexually assaulting a boy in a shower at Penn State's football complex.

"The 125 guys on the team didn't have anything to do with 10 years ago," Penn State safety Drew Astorino said Wednesday.

The players shouldn't be punished for something in which they had no hand. They already will play without their head coach. They'll play without their receivers coach, too. McQueary, who has been placed on administrative leave but stunningly still has a job, has been ordered to stay away from the game out of concerns for his safety.

The NCAA often punishes players who had no role in any wrongdoing. That's wrong, too. There is no justification for punishing the innocent. These are college students who deserve a chance to play. If anything, Astorino said, football has provided a welcome distraction from the scandal. "That hour and a half to two hours that we get to be out there practicing is definitely a relief," Astorino said.

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So how will Penn State play after a week of shock, uncertainty and raw emotions? Teams tend to either surge or flop after trauma. There is little middle ground. The quality of the opponent matters, too. Nebraska is 7-2, but the Cornhuskers are fighting for their lives in the Big Ten Legends Division. A loss probably would crush their aspirations of winning the Big Ten title in their first year in the league, so the Huskers are plenty motivated.

But Penn State has its own on-field motivation beyond winning one for the seniors in their last game or winning one for their fired coach. The Nittany Lions are a surprising 8-1, and Penn State is the only team still undefeated in Big Ten play and firmly atop the Leaders Division. That could be a function of schedule, though. Those five wins came against teams that have a combined 9-18 record in Big Ten play. Penn State's final three games are against teams with a combined Big Ten record of 9-6.

We'll learn during the next three weeks whether it was a favorable schedule or Penn State's ferocious defense that allowed the Nittany Lions to win this many games. Led by coordinator Tom Bradley -- Penn State's interim head coach -- and nearly unblockable defensive tackle Devon Still, Penn State ranks third in the nation in scoring defense (12.4 points a game). That stinginess has been necessary, because Penn State's offense ranks No. 100 in the nation in scoring at 21.8 points a game.

The Nittany Lions' lack of success on offense -- and their puzzling two-quarterback system -- has made them the target of football-related derision all season. So offensive tackle Chima Okoli wasn't shocked that many assumed the Nittany Lions would fold because of the events of this week. "We'll be fine," Okoli said Wednesday. "Quite frankly, you guys in the media and even people in the sporting world have been doubting us all season. We know we have to come together. This is going to do that and really galvanize us."

Senior Day at Beaver Stadium will only add to the emotion. "What I do know is that I'm going to be playing my last [home] football game with some people that I've spent five years with," Astorino said. "Some people I really, really care about. We're playing for each other right now. We're playing for all we've worked for the past five years."

Those tempted to jeer Penn State's team because of all this need to remember one thing: These players did nothing wrong. They got swept up in something much bigger than them. Sandusky will get his day in court. Some of the people who failed the alleged victims of Sandusky will be prosecuted. Some, such as Paterno and Spanier, have been fired and disgraced. Others will be identified and treated in a similar fashion. These players are not those people. They deserve cheers.

The events of this week should have put football in its proper perspective. It is a recreational activity, an escape, a relief from the crush of the real world. For Penn State's players, a little scrimmage against Nebraska should provide four hours of relief. But they'd still prefer to win. "We're not going to hide in a shell," Okoli said. "We're not going to roll over and play dead."