Playing for purpose: Penn State opens with Ohio
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — A season of change is finally about to begin at Penn State.
New coach. New offense. A new look to the classic uniform.
Ohio visits Beaver Stadium on Saturday for the historic season opener. Time to play football again following an offseason no one could have imagined.
"It's going to be very emotional, not only for me, but for everyone in that stadium," senior linebacker Mike Mauti said. "Finally getting back to work ... giving the fans something to cheer about and that's what we're all looking forward to the most."
Anger still simmers among the fan base for landmark penalties levied by the NCAA on the program for the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. New coach Bill O'Brien and players that had nothing to do with the scandal took the brunt of the punishment.
No bowl games for four years. Significant scholarship cuts. Five years probation. All those lofty preseason goals like playing for a BCS game are off the table.
It doesn't mean Penn State is playing without a purpose, though.
"We're playing for pride, playing for respect," said Gerald Hodges, who combines with Mauti to form one of the top outside linebacker tandems in the Big Ten. "No matter what you're going to do to us, we're going to get back up."
Clearly, this isn't the situation that O'Brien expected to inherit when he replaced the late Joe Paterno in January.
But the former offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots has deftly navigated an extraordinary first eight months on the job. With no previous ties to Penn State, O'Brien is firmly focused on the future while also displaying sensitivity to the problem of child abuse.
Players' names are being added to the once-simple blue-and-white Penn State jerseys. A blue ribbon will be added to the back of helmets to show support for victims of abuse.
With Mauti and fullback Michael Zordich leading the way, more than 90 percent of the Nittany Lions chose to stick with Penn State after the sanctions were announced and the NCAA gave players the option to seek an immediate transfer.
In return, fans have showed an outpouring of support for players who returned.
"We're just the football program that's trying to be a part of making sure that we go out there and play well," O'Brien said, "but also help the community as much as we possibly can."
A year ago, Paterno was entering his 46th and final season as Penn State head coach. On Saturday, it will be O'Brien charging out of the tunnel with the team to begin his rookie campaign.
Ohio coach Frank Solich knows a little about replacing a well-known predecessor. He took over at Nebraska after Tom Osborne retired as head coach in 1997. Osborne has since returned to Nebraska as athletic director.
Solich, Osborne's hand-picked successor, was 58-19 with the Cornhuskers before being fired following six seasons.
"But the challenge of replacing a successful coach prior to you is daunting," Solich said this week. "The expectations (at Penn State) are very much the same from when I took over at Nebraska ... there are some things that have transpired there that obviously have complicated things more."
Lately, things have been looking up for Solich in Athens, Ohio. The Bobcats finished 10-4 last year including a 24-23 victory over Utah State in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl — the school's first-ever postseason victory.
"Now it's time," he said, "for this group to take another step in terms of forward movement for the program."
Ohio is so happy with Solich, they gave him a five-year extension this week to keep him with the Bobcats until 2017. Solich has 50 wins in seven seasons there.
"There is no better college football coach in the country than Frank Solich," Ohio athletic director Jim Schaus said in a statement.
The Bobcats won't be the typical season-opening pushover for Penn State. They return eight starters on defense, while Tyler Tettleton is one of the MAC's top quarterbacks after setting 12 new school records last season.
The quarterback situation is settled at Penn State, as well, after two seasons of a two-QB system. Matt McGloin was tabbed the starter after the spring game, and Rob Bolden transferred to LSU.
That means McGloin had a full offseason to master the new playbook instituted by O'Brien. It is modeled after the Patriots' high-scoring attack. And it is not easy.
"The comfort level in myself and the offense is very high right now because everybody is very comfortable with what they've been doing," McGloin said. "Hopefully we can control our emotions on Saturday and play that (same way) the whole game."
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