(The Blaze/AP) Penn State and visiting Nebraska players gathered at midfield before the first game at Beaver Stadium in 46 years without former Penn State head coach Joe Paterno.
Instead of sprinting onto the field, the Penn State team marched out arm-in-arm through a corridor formed by the band and the Football Lettermen Club. They with the Nebraska players to kneel together and remember the victims of the alleged sexual abuse at the hands of former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky.
“Lord, we know we don’t have control of all these events that took place this week. But we do know that you are bigger than it all,” Nebraska running backs coach Ron Brown said in the pregame prayer.
After a week of turmoil, the campus has been in a daze:
Capping the worst week in school history, No. 12 Penn State couldn’t overcome a 17-point deficit and was stopped short on a fourth-and-1 late in a 17-14 loss Saturday to No. 19 Nebraska.
The outcome was secondary in Happy Valley.
A tumultuous chapter that began with the arrest of former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky on shocking child sexual abuse charges ended Saturday with Penn State (8-2, 5-1 Big Ten) losing in its first game of the post-Joe Paterno era. The winningest major college football coach ever was fired Wednesday.
School president Rod Erickson met the Nittany Lions in the locker room afterward and praised, “how much courage, how much heart, and how much character” the players had, he said.
Most Penn State fans heeded calls for a “blueout,” wearing the school’s familiar dark blue in support of victims of child sexual abuse. Beaver Stadium was awash in blue right down to the flags that accompanied the band, and more than $22,000 was collected for charities that support prevention of child abuse.
“We are … Penn State,” roared the crowd through the afternoon, the signature State College cheer.
But this school’s identity has forever changed.
“I think today it just made the healing process start to begin,” interim coach Tom Bradley said.
Sandusky, architect of the “Linebacker U.” defenses, was charged last weekend with sexually abusing eight boys over 15 years. The athletic director and a university vice president were charged with perjury and failure to report a 2002 allegation to police, and Paterno was fired following mounting fury he did not do more about the charge – that Sandusky assaulted a boy in the Penn State football showers – than pass it along to his bosses. President Graham Spanier also was ousted for similar reasons.
Thousands of angry students paraded through the streets after Paterno was fired Wednesday night, some throwing rocks and bottles and tipping over a TV news van. While the anger has waned, the fondness for Paterno has not.
Several students were dressed as Paterno – rolled-up khakis, white socks and thick, dark glasses – and an entire family wore shirts that read “We (Heart) JoePa.”
The last time Penn State played a game at Beaver Stadium, on Oct. 29, Paterno was feted by Spanier for his 409th career victory, the most in Division I history.
On Saturday, he was nowhere to be found – save for a few fleeting images on the video boards overhead. That was enough to get spontaneous cheers of “Joe Paterno!” ringing through the stands.
Paterno’s son, quarterback coach Jay Paterno, moved down from his usual spot in the press box to relay plays from the sideline – a job once held by assistant coach Mike McQueary.
“We’ve had better weeks in our lives, obviously,” Jay Paterno said. “I think about a week ago, where we were sitting, the world’s kind of turned upside down, but I think our kids were resilient.”
McQueary was among the missing after being placed on indefinite paid leave Friday by the school. His name surfaced as a grand jury witness to the 2002 abuse charge. Sandusky, who retired in 1999 but lives in the area and had access to school facilities, maintains his innocence.
McQueary, Joe Paterno says, told him that Sandusky had behaved inappropriately, but not to the extent of the detailed testimony. Paterno then passed the information on to Curley, but the report was not given to police News of the scandal elicited threats to McQueary, the school said, and brought heightened security.
Though police promised a heavy presence to prevent a recurrence of the violence that occurred Wednesday night, all seemed calm.
“Personally I felt this was a time to play, but also was time we could recognize and bring national focus to the problem of sexual abuse,” Erickson said. “Our players and everyone involved, the way they conducted themselves today, proved that this was the right decision. This was the way to do it.”
The parking lots were filled with fans grilling out, tossing footballs and soaking up the beauty of the warm, late fall morning.
“It’s therapy,” Dave Young, a lifelong Penn State fan, said before the game. “I love Penn State football, always will love Penn State football. Tough week, cried in my office a couple times when I had moments to myself.
“But now it’s time to release and watch the football game and enjoy it.”
By the second half, fans seemed most concerned about whether the Nittany Lions could get back into the game. The Corhuskers built a 17-0 lead, with Burkhead gashing Penn State’s staunch D on 25 carries. He motored 14 yards into the end zone with 8:51 left in the third quarter for a 17-0 lead.
Then came the second-half push from Green on Senior Day – his last game at Beaver Stadium.
The senior scored from 5 yards with 5:07 in the third quarter, then added a 6-yard run at 5:42 of the fourth to get Penn State within three. Green finished with 71 yards on 17 carries. But the offense faltered on two late drives, including the fourth-and-1 stop of Redd. Out of timeouts with 49 seconds left, the Nittany Lions got the ball back but could get no farther than their own 46 before time expired.
The fans cheered anyway, and greeted the Nittany Lions with one more chorus of “We are … Penn State.”