Penn State tailback Stephfon Greene had just crashed over the goal line to cut Nebraska's once-commanding lead to three with 5:42 remaining. The denizens of Beaver Stadium shook from their daze and roared. For the first time all week, everyone thought football thoughts. Would Penn State score? Would Nebraska hold?
Then the clock expired. Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin had tried furiously to run one more play. There would be no more plays. Nebraska had won, 17-14. Reality settled in again.
Penn State interim coach Tom Bradley called it "a week unprecedented in college football history." That was not hyperbole. A week earlier, a grand jury charged former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky with 40 counts of sexual abuse of a child. Penn State athletic director Tim Curley and vice president Gary Schultz were each charged with perjury. The graphic grand jury presentment also dragged beloved, iconic Penn State football coach Joe Paterno into the slime. At best, it showed that the winningest coach in Division I history received a report of Sandusky sexually abusing of a boy in a shower at the Penn State football complex in 2002 and did nothing but forward the allegation to his equally apathetic supervisors -- who actually had less influence than he did. No one called the police. No one attempted to find the boy.
The presentment ignited national outrage, and by Wednesday night, Penn State's Board of Trustees had to act. The board fired Paterno and Penn State president Graham Spanier. Students, enraged by the decision or just looking to raise hell, took to the streets after the announcement, embarrassing the school and its alumni. The campus calmed Thursday, and thousands of peaceful students covered the lawn in front Old Main -- Penn State's administration building -- for a candlelight vigil Friday in honor of the victims. Though State College had quieted, Saturday would be the first Penn State game since 1949 that didn't involve Joe Paterno. No one quite knew how anyone would react.
Meanwhile, a group of players who had nothing to do with what happened in 2002 still had to prepare for a football game. Penn State players took refuge at practice and tried to escape the news outside the football complex. "The thing that was so different for us was just turning the TV on and hear it non-stop," receiver Derek Moye said. Players did their best to tune out the scandal that had sent news vans screeching onto their campus by the dozens. "Watch a different channel," Moye said. "Cartoon Network."
Bradley, the Nittany Lions' defensive coordinator, took over for Paterno on Wednesday night. He called Paterno, who told him to take care of the team. Bradley would have to take care of a lot. Bradley called the defensive plays, but he would have to delegate some of that. Meanwhile, he had to negotiate the changing situation with receivers coach Mike McQueary. It was McQueary who told the grand jury that in 2002, when he was a graduate assistant, he saw Sandusky rape a boy in the Penn State shower. McQueary told the grand jury he fled the scene and told his father, who told him to tell Paterno. With everyone else involved relieved of duty by Thursday, the prevailing question was: Why does McQueary still have a job? Thursday night, McQueary was told to avoid the game because of threats received against him. Friday, Penn State placed McQueary on administrative leave.
That move forced Bradley to move quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno from the press box to the field. One of McQueary's chief gameday duties was managing the substitutions for the receivers. Paterno would handle those duties as well as call the offensive plays. For a play-caller, moving from the press box to the field is like deciding to drive a car from the back seat on the right instead of the front seat on the left. When that play-caller's father has just been fired after 62 years as an employee of the university, it only adds to the awkwardness.
Saturday, Jay Paterno made a brief stop at his parents' home on the edge of Penn State's campus. He handed his sister a letter addressed to Joe and Sue Paterno and asked that they not read it until after he could "get the hell out of here." A prolonged conversation with his father would only make him emotional, so the younger Paterno didn't linger. Jay Paterno, who wore the white jacket his father wore when he passed Bear Bryant's victory total against Ohio State in 2001, still broke down Saturday. Afterward, Jay said he hoped his father hadn't seen his tears. Later, Jay Paterno joked that he wasn't even sure Joe Paterno had watched the game. "Who knows?" Jay said. "He may have been out cutting the grass."
In the locker room, a former Penn State player read a letter from Joe Paterno. "You could hear a pin drop," McGloin said. "There were a lot of tears." McGloin didn't reveal the specific contents of the letter, but he said it was brief. "It was just a few sentences about how he was upset that he couldn't be here and just to focus on the game. Typical Joe."
Instead of storming the field, Penn State players emerged from the locker room walking arm-in-arm. Before the kickoff, the Nittany Lions and Cornhuskers gathered at midfield, and Nebraska running backs coach Ron Brown led a prayer. The gathering was a coordinated effort between the Nebraska and Penn State programs. "I thought a show of solidarity was something that was probably pretty sorely needed in the situation that everybody's facing," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said.
Pelini said he originally didn't think the game should be played. "The situation that is going on is bigger than football," Pelini said in a postgame press conference that should be required viewing for college football fans. "It was bigger than the game that was just played." Pelini hopes the pregame prayer provided a little perspective. "It's about doing what's right, and it's about society. It's about right and wrong," Pelini said. "Trust me when I tell you, I don't know the specifics of the situation. I'm not judging anybody, but the fact is young kids were hurt. That's a crime in itself. It's a lot bigger than football. It's a lot bigger than the NCAA, the Big Ten or anything else."
The game itself played out just as everyone expected it would before the scandal exploded. Both defenses were much better than both offenses, and points came at a premium. Nebraska kicker/punter Brett Maher hit a 41-yard field goal and helped the Cornhuskers control field position by averaging 45 yards per punt and by pinning Penn State inside its own 20-yard line five times. Nebraska tailback Rex Burkhead ran for 121 yards and a touchdown, but it was Burkhead -- who had lined up under center -- who fumbled an exchange early in the fourth quarter. Penn State recovered and drove for the touchdown that gave it hope.
On Penn State's next offensive possession, the Nittany Lions faced fourth-and-one from their own 37. Cornuskers linebacker Lavonte David smothered Penn State back Silas Redd, and referee Scott McElwee called for the chain gang. Redd had come up inches short. The stadium fell silent.
Normal disappeared again.
After the game, as fans made pilgrimages to Joe Paterno's house, Penn State interim president Rodney Erickson again promised that the school will conduct a full investigation into the failures of men and culture that allowed an accusation of sexual abuse to go unreported to the police for years. "We will be completely open and transparent," Erickson said, and those words portend dark times ahead as rocks are overturned and warts are exposed.
While jobs and reputations may not survive, Penn State will. That was obvious Saturday. When the clock expired, everyone in the stadium broke into polite applause. As Penn State players approached the best student section in college football, the cheers grew louder. Then one side of the stadium screamed.
The other side responded.
"I felt today," Bradley said, "that just maybe the healing process has started to begin."