STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – The new-look Penn State Nittany Lions are getting quite adept at proving skeptics wrong.
Most of them stuck it out this summer after the NCAA announced sanctions so severe, some college football observers opined the program was better off with the so-called "death penalty." About 10 players transferred before preseason practice. Then, an 0-2 start had even the die-hard fans wondering if a feared post-sanctions dry spell had arrived early in Happy Valley.
Not even close.
Penn State football is making headlines again — for what's happening on the field. A five-game winning streak sparked by a fun, unpredictable offense and trademark Linebacker U. defense has propelled the Nittany Lions (5-2, 3-0 Big Ten) into the Leaders Division title race headed into the Saturday evening tilt against unbeaten No. 9 Ohio State (8-0, 4-0).
Both schools might be ineligible for the overall Big Ten championship because of sanctions, so Saturday night's game has extra juice as a virtual midseason bowl game in Happy Valley.
"These are the kinds of games you dream of playing ... but we also feel that we worked to get here," running back and senior leader Michael Zordich said. "We've earned this spot."
Perhaps no other team in the history of college football has had to endure the kind of adversity that has swirled around the Nittany Lions the past year.
How the school handled the child sex abuse scandal involving retired assistant coach Jerry Sandusky led to the landmark NCAA penalties in July. About 10 players took advantage of an NCAA waiver for an immediate transfer to another school, most notably tailback Silas Redd (Southern California), receiver Justin Brown (Oklahoma) and punter-kicker Anthony Fera (Texas).
Then came the 0-2 start, beginning with the 24-14 loss at home to No. 23 Ohio in the season opener. A 17-16 loss a week later to Virginia highlighted how much Fera's defection hurt when current kicker Sam Ficken missed four field goals, including a potential game-winner from 42 as time expired.
They're the kind of close, tough losses that could send teams on a downward spiral.
But on the adversity scale, it turned out to be a blip compared with the off-the-field scrutiny on the program due to a scandal that had nothing to do with the players.
This hardship was just about football, something the Nittany Lions could control.
On defense, that meant tightening up on third downs. Penn State hasn't played much nickel this year because of a lack of depth in the secondary, so defensive coordinator Ted Roof adjusted by getting more speed on the field on third downs by inserting Mike Hull for starter Glenn Carson at middle linebacker, and juggling his secondary by moving promising corner Adrian Amos to safety and inserting freshman Da'Quan Davis to replace Amos on the corner.
"I guess it's just the intensity level in how we played. I guess it's just the pride," linebacker Gerald Hodges said about the improved third-down play. "The backbone that we established for ourselves, being able to buckle down."
The defense gets better each week, as does an offense that looks nothing like what the Nittany Lions were known for doing under the late coach Joe Paterno.
Pretty much any drive past the Penn State 40 these days is four-down territory. Savvy senior Matt McGloin (255 yards per game) leads the Big Ten in passing, while sophomore Allen Robinson has a league-high 47 receptions.
No Redd and Brown? You can hardly tell.
The offense has had 100-yard rushers in each of the last three games, and the up-tempo, no-huddle "NASCAR" package looks a lot like the high-scoring Patriots attack that first-year coach Bill O'Brien used to coordinate in the NFL with New England.
"We had the new offense, we had the new coaches, and everything kind of had to blend together," Zordich said. "We didn't freak out, but we knew we couldn't lose again ... We went out together and calmed down."
Now, Happy Valley is hyped up for a big game, complete with a called "White House" for Saturday — when Penn State fans are encouraged to wear all white. Those conditions tend to whip up what's already known as a loud crowd into a frenzy.
Outside Beaver Stadium, organizers of the "Nittanyville" student campout section say the makeshift tent city already has a record population of 1,200.
"This is kind of like the Big Ten championship game," student Jake Maruschok said while taking a break from tossing around a football at Nittanyville with fellow junior Chris Waterman.
"It's just football again," Waterman said.
Not surprisingly, the players are also having fun.
The up-tempo offense is piling up points. The already solid defensive schemes in place when O'Brien took over have been tweaked to play more aggressively — playing right into the strength of the unit in a tough front seven led by Hodges and fellow standout outside linebacker Michael Mauti.
But for as much success as Penn State is having so far, it's hard to use the 5-2 start as a barometer for the future.
Mauti, Hodges and Zordich are three of the respected leaders in a senior class that has led the way for the rest of the team through the scandal. They'll be gone in 2013, when the scholarship cuts start taking effect.
Penn State will also have to find a new starting quarterback with McGloin also a senior this season. Those players who aren't currently seniors will still have the option to transfer immediately until the NCAA waiver expires when training camp begins again in 2013.
But those are all concerns for O'Brien to worry about when this season is over. Time is precious for this group of seniors, with their college careers over in a month no matter what since the Nittany Lions can't go to a postseason bowl.
Playing Ohio State is one of their 12 regular-season "bowl games."
"Guys went through hell's kitchen in the offseason. Working out in the spring time, running out on the hills in the hot sun," Hodges said. "I don't care if you're a freshman or if it's your last game, everyone deserves it."
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