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It’s a New Penn State, A New Football Program

August 22, 2012
By CORY GIGER , The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - Penn State football as we've come to know it no longer exists in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal and severe NCAA sanctions.

The legendary coach is gone. The pristine image has been tarnished. The iconic, bland, blue and white uniforms have been changed to include names on the back. There will be no bowl game this year or in the near future. Massive scholarship reductions will diminish the talent pool for several years. On the field, the offensive and defensive schemes will be much different. And some of the best players have left the team.

"It's a new Penn State. It's a new Penn State football program," first-year coach Bill O'Brien said.

The players who remain on the squad hope to be rewarded for their loyalty to the school and program with a strong season after enduring more adversity than any other team in the history of college football.

"We've got a bunch of proud kids that are here," O'Brien said. "They have a passion for playing football, they have a passion for going to school here, they really understand the reason why we're in the situation we're in. But they still want to go out there and play for themselves and for their university."

Officially, the players on this team have never won a college football game after PSU was forced to vacate all victories from 1998 through 2011. The sanctions removed 111 wins from Joe Paterno's resume, dropping him from a Division I record 409 down to 298, and one additional win by interim coach Tom Bradley last year also was vacated.

A month ago, before the NCAA leveled PSU with a four-year bowl ban and significant scholarship reductions, the Nittany Lions were widely considered to be a 9-3 or 8-4 team.

But with the sanctions and transfers of key players - most notably running back Silas Redd (USC), receiver Justin Brown (Oklahoma) and kicker Anthony Fera (Texas) - the over/under for wins has been placed at 5 1/2 by several Las Vegas oddsmakers.

If the Lions are to surpass expectations, much of it will be because of the team's strong leadership. That characteristic has been on display repeatedly in recent weeks, since the NCAA levied the sanctions July 23.

Senior linebacker Michael Mauti and senior running back Michael Zordich, both legacy players whose fathers also played at Penn State, showed the strongest examples of that leadership when they made statements representing the entire team July 25.

"This program was not built by one man, and this program sure as hell is not going to get torn down by one man," Mauti said, referencing Sandusky.

Speaking of his teammates, Mauti added, "Right now, all we can do, we can put our heads down, and we're just going to work. That's all we can do. We're going to play for Penn State, we're going to fight for each other because this is what Penn State's about - fighting through adversity. And we're going to show up every Saturday and we're going to raise hell."

The Lions will try to do that with senior Matt McGloin at quarterback and a revamped offense that's similar to the system O'Brien ran when he was offensive coordinator for New England in 2011. The schemes will be similar to the Patriots, anyway, but Penn State does not have anywhere near the kind of star power that the NFL team does.

Losing Redd was a huge blow as he rushed for 1,241 yards last season. Sophomore Bill Belton, a converted receiver, will be the lead tailback and will be running behind an offensive line that lost four starters.

Brown caught 35 passes last season and would have been the primary receiving target. Taking him out of the mix means that no one on this year's team had more than five catches in 2011.

The offense will be a work in progress, but the defense figures to carry the team and is led by a superb group of linebackers and strong defensive line. Mauti and Gerald Hodges are star linebackers, and defensive tackle Jordan Hill will be the focal point on the line.

"The front seven is the strength of our football team," O'Brien said.

Fera would have been a strength after handling place-kicking, punting and kickoff duties last season - the first PSU player to do all three since Chris Bahr in 1975. Now the kicking game will be a question mark with sophomore Sam Ficken doing the place-kicking and junior Alex Butterworth competing with redshirt freshman Matt Marcincin at punter.

The Lions have some major question marks, including an inexperienced secondary with little depth, but at this point many people have faith that O'Brien's presence and new philosophies will energize the team to the point of seven or eight wins.

Still, there are depth concerns at various key positions, so the Lions will have to stay healthy in order to get close to that many victories.

The schedule sets up nicely for a potentially strong start, with winnable non-conference games against Ohio, Navy and Temple, and there's a tough game at Virginia in week two that could provide some foreshadowing for how the Lions will play against better competition later on.

O'Brien has received rave reviews since getting the job in January, doing and saying all the right things during the tumultuous fallout from the scandal. He knew he would be in for a difficult challenge when he took the position, but he could not have known how difficult things would turn out because of the unprecedented NCAA sanctions.

Some people have suggested that Penn State's punishment is worse than the death penalty, although O'Brien doesn't see it that way.

"No. We are playing football," he said.

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