Penn State fans show their support for the alleged victims of child abuse… (David Swanson / McClatchy-Tribune )
STATE COLLEGE, PA. — Graham Zug used to call this place home.
Until a year ago, he was a Penn State receiver. His older brother was part of the school's Blue Band.
As Zug stood behind the Nittany Lions' bench Saturday alongside countless other former players in a symbol of solidarity, he said he could sense something inside Beaver Stadium wasn't normal.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, November 18, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
Penn State football: In the Nov. 13 Sports section, the caption with a photo of a kneeling Penn State football player that accompanied an article on the school's loss to Nebraska misidentified the player as backup quarterback Rob Bolden. The player pictured was backup quarterback Shane McGregor.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, November 20, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Penn State football: In the Nov. 13 Sports section, the caption with a photo of a kneeling Penn State football player that accompanied an article on the school's loss to Nebraska misidentified the player as backup quarterback Rob Bolden. The player was backup quarterback Shane McGregor.
There were 107,903 fans in the building, but the atmosphere was subdued.
"It was different," Zug said. "You could tell."
Only three days after child sex crime allegations against a former defensive coordinator cost longtime coach Joe Paterno his job, Penn State resumed playing football. Interim Coach Tom Bradley said he hoped his No. 12 team's 17-14 defeat to No. 19 Nebraska would start the "healing process."
Members of Penn State's administration, coaching staff, players and fans complimented each other on how they showed their support for child-abuse victims. Fans wore blue instead of the white that is customary for games of this magnitude. There was a moment of silence. The stadium grew quiet again when Penn State players knelt alongside their Nebraska counterparts and took part in a pregame prayer led by the visiting running backs coach.
Figuring the community would respond in such a manner, interim university President Rodney Erickson said he never considered canceling the game.
"I personally felt that this was a time to play, but this was also a time we could recognize and bring national focus to the problem of sexual abuse and do so in a way that reflected unity, that reflected the support and that reflected the need for us to bring these issues to the open," he said. "This was the way to do to it."
Penn State trailed, 17-0, midway through the third quarter before rallying. A six-yard run by Stephfon Green with 5 minutes 42 seconds left in the game cut Nebraska's lead to three points.
The Nittany Lions got the ball back twice in the last 3:52 but couldn't score.
The way the game ended, perhaps symbolically, was chaotic.
Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin completed a pass to Devon Smith in the middle of the field as the final seconds ticked down. The Nittany Lions barely got another play off, but McGloin was rushed and was able to get off only another short pass to the middle of the field that fell incomplete.
The loss was Penn State's first in Big Ten Conference play after five wins. The Nittany Lions are 8-2 overall but have road games against two tough opponents, Ohio State and Wisconsin, to finish the regular season.
Nebraska improved to 8-2 overall, 4-2 in conference play.
On a more important topic, the Penn State community has reacted decisively on the subject of sexual abuse. But it was clear Saturday that it's having trouble reconciling its thoughts and feelings about Paterno. The iconic coach has been criticized by some for relaying information about Jerry Sandusky's alleged crimes to his institutional superiors but not the police; and he has been defended by others, who say it's unclear what he knew.
Before the game, fans formed long lines to take photographs beside his statue outside the stadium. Fans wore shirts and held signs showing their support for him. When images of Paterno were shown on the video scoreboard at halftime, there was a roar of approval. Early in the third and fourth quarters chants of "Joe-Pa! Joe-Pa!" broke out.
When Paterno returned home after the game -- his whereabouts during the game were unknown -- about 75 fans were waiting for him.
Leonard Tintner, 81, was among the conflicted.
This was Tintner's 45th year as a season-ticket holder. He said he attended his first game in 1955, when his late wife was a student at Penn State and the football stadium was on campus.
Tailgating in the parking lot with his son and his son's friend, Tintner recalled, "This used to be all cow fields."
Tintner talked about how Paterno transformed the football program and, by extension, the school and the town. "The school was small at the time," he said.
A retired lawyer, Tintner said Paterno had to be fired. But, he said, "I'm saddened."
Tintner looked down as he mentioned how Paterno's name might be removed from the Big Ten Conference's football championship trophy.
Tintner could separate the Paterno who transformed a region from the Paterno who supervised an alleged pedophile, but others were further complicating the issue by raising tangential points.
Several fans complained about the avalanche of media coverage. They criticized the fact that Paterno was fired over the phone.
Caught in the middle were the players, who weren't accused of wrongdoing but found themselves trying to restore the school's tarnished image.
"I wouldn't say it's unfair," a senior player said. "We knew we had some responsibility."
That sounded like a mature statement until it became clear the player was speaking in football-only terms. By responsibility, he meant the team had the responsibility to win.
"We let down some of the fans," he said.