Season shows PSU is still a top program

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Michael Mauti bowed his head slightly and choked back tears before Saturday's game. Jordan Hill embraced a line of fans once he stepped off the blue bus.

Seniors lingered on the field and tugged one last time on the victory bell -- shortly after Bill O'Brien whispered a Hail Mary and the team watched Kyle French push a 44-yard field goal wide left in a 24-21 overtime win. Before, during and after the game, the emotions of the last 13 months -- a scandal, a coach's death, the sanctions -- were painted on the faces of Penn State's players and worn on their helmets.

This game embodied the Nittany Lions' tumultuous season. Few expected them to come back, but they quickly showed -- after the first two scores -- they wouldn't surrender. They pressed, they pushed and they out-fought Wisconsin.

"I think this says that you can take bowl games and you can take external things from people," defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. "But you can't take a warrior's heart. And our kids got warriors' hearts."

An oversized, almost goofy grin was glued to John Urschel's face, but he didn't mind -- even when it was pointed out. Urschel shook his head, recalling how everyone counted Penn State out before the season.

Some columnists opined how 80 fewer scholarships, no postseason and lax transfer rules would bury Penn State with a fate worse than SMU's death penalty. This was cruel and unusual punishment, some said. Silas Redd transferred; Justin Brown followed. And with 10 new offensive starters, it seemed as if Penn State's hopes might have gone with them.

But, Urschel said, this team refused to allow opinions, losses or sanctions affect it. Players leaned on each other like family, a term thrown around more often in the interview room than "Wisconsin," "Zwinak," or "win."

"This shows everybody that Penn State football is still extremely strong -- in spite of the sanctions," Urschel said.

On paper, this game meant nothing. Penn State couldn't earn a share of the division title; its season would end Nov. 24 whether it won big or lost by 100. But this game was far from meaningless to the 93,505 fans who braved the stinging cold.

Urschel, as smart a football player you'll ever meet who recently had a paper published on asteroids, even called it the most important win of his career. Senior cornerback Stephon Morris, who usually treats the media like a first cousin at a reunion, spoke softly Saturday. The emotion of this win, this season, was catching up to him faster than he could catch up to a fullback.

He planned to keep his white helmet, scratched with streaks of reds and blacks from hard hits. But in a fit of joy, he tossed it in the air once French missed his kick. Thirty minutes later, he lamented, as he still couldn't find it.

"We care, we care a whole lot," Morris said. "As winners, as fighters, anything is possible."

Anything is possible. With this Penn State team, it would be difficult to argue. A former walk-on that no one wanted, Matt McGloin had a finer season than any other Penn State quarterback in school history. Zach Zwinak, a former third-string fullback, reached 1,000 yards.

This was supposed to be a renaissance of the "dark years." Penn State was supposed to flail miserably in Big Ten play; it was supposed to embarrass itself and the university. It was supposed to lose, often and by a lot.

Instead, Penn State's dimple-chinned coach scowled through the adversity and led this team to an improbable 8-4 season.

"To end this year, to end this chapter of Penn State," Urschel said. "This has been a long year. There have been a lot of things going on and to end it on an eight-win season -- everyone was telling us three wins, four wins, two wins; telling us that we lost our best players -- to be able to have a good season like this, eight wins, it's a testament to Coach O'Brien and a testament to our seniors."

And a testament to the university.

On paper, this was just a football game. But, just like this win could be viewed in the overall conference picture, this season embodied something more.

With Penn State's program kicked to the curb, expected to struggle and wheeze through its final breaths, it somehow became reinvigorated. If Penn State football isn't down, Penn State University isn't down.

O'Brien grabbed the microphone shortly after his team swayed and sang the alma mater, with students screaming out one line: "May no act of ours bring shame."

O'Brien, a man whose pep rally speeches take less than 75 seconds, uttered just a few words. "I just have one thing to say," he screamed, pausing slightly. "We are!" ... "Penn State!" came the reply.

They sure are. And they showed Saturday they still will be.