By Chris Mahr
For the Penn State faithful, the 2012 season can never be just about football. Too much happened in the past offseason for it to wander far from the minds of Nittany Lions fans.
The latest twist in this drama came on Wednesday, when former Penn State quarterback and assistant coach Mike McQueary filed a defamation suit against the school. He claims that his treatment by Penn State since last November has caused him distress and embarrassment, damages for which he is seeking millions of dollars.
Amidst this, Penn State is now one month into its quest of trying to get back to winning football games. The first month in what seems like an eternity (not counting the end of last season) since Joe Paterno wasn’t the one leading PSU.
And so far? It hasn’t been terrible.
I’m not ready to anoint this season as a complete success after just five games. But at the rate things are progressing, it won’t be a complete failure, either. Let’s take a closer look at the factors weighing on this season.
Bill O’Brien has come in and said and done all the right things. He pledged to see things through after learning of Penn State’s four-year bowl ban. (A clause in his contract, in fact, added an extra year for each year the program was sanctioned, so he’s already received a four-year extension.) His decision to put nameplates on his players’ jerseys was met with mostly widespread approval.
Most important is that he’s striking that balance between optimism and realism. Fans already know the situation is rather dire, but they don’t need to hear the head coach saying that, too. They need him to be bold and say bold things, like not worrying about the recruiting situation.
And yes, they also need him to win. That he’s reeled off three straight after two gut-wrenching defeats to start the season has been impressive, even if it was against the likes of Navy, Temple and Illinois. When you’re in Penn State’s situation, you won’t be picky about who you win against.
They’re the ones that opted to stick around even after the NCAA gave them the choice of transferring out. They’ll be the ones to hold down the fort and play for pride (but no postseason berths) for four seasons. They’re the ones who put it upon themselves to keep hope alive in Happy Valley.
Is there a better encapsulation of this than Scranton-bred QB Matt McGloin? He had taken his share of lumps even before the scandal broke last year, his performance rising and falling from game to game.
This year he’s playing with a sense of command Nittany Lions fans haven’t seen before, having thrown for 10 TDs and just two picks while rushing for another four TDs and completing passes at a higher rate than ever.
And the defense is displaying a stinginess befitting Penn State’s pride on that side of the ball. Its mark of 13.6 points allowed per game is 14th-best in the FBS and second in the Big Ten. While the Nittany Lions still have the likes of Ohio State, Nebraska and Wisconsin on their schedule, they have so far shown an ability to lock down opponents when need be.
The National Perception
There have been a few tasteless t-shirts made and no doubt jokes have been exchanged. But right now people want to hear about Penn State and how they’re doing on the field. They seem generally tired by the headlines tied to the scandal, particularly after Jerry Sandusky was found guilty in June on 45 of 48 of the charges he faced.
And that’s how Penn State wants it. The irreparable damage has been done, now they want the opportunity to rebuild. They don’t want to forget what happened or sweep it under the rug, but they do want to move on from it.
It’s too early for anything Penn State related to be just about football. But maybe if Penn State plays its cards right it can become primarily about that sooner rather than later.
One month down, two to go to see how bright the sun will shine over Happy Valley.
Chris Mahr is the managing editor of Lost Lettermen. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can follow him on Twitter at @CMahrtian.