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CHRIS DUFRESNE / ON COLLEGE FOOTBALL

Reality of Penn State's situation sinks in with loss to Ohio

The 'We are Penn State' chant is unchanged, but the team on the field is vastly different from the Joe Paterno-era Nittany Lions.

September 01, 2012|Chris Dufresne
  • Patrick Smith / Getty Images
Patrick Smith / Getty Images (m9ot5wpd20120901132234/600 )

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The chant was persistent and pervasive. It started outside Beaver Stadium before noon and continued inside throughout the game. It cut through months of pent-up pain and jaw-dropping allegations and court trials and NCAA sanctions.

"We are … Penn State!"

Another harsh reality, though, dropped in on Happy Valley as the football team and community tried to move forward from a poisonous past year.

They are … 0-1.

The first Penn State game since 1949 played without Joe Paterno on staff played out excitedly and beautifully — for Ohio, which defeated Penn State, 24-14, before a less-than-capacity crowd of 97,186.

Penn State lost its opener to a Mid-American Conference team, and the better team won.

The Nittany Lions, short-handed by sanctions, wore down in the steamy heat. The home team got outscored, 21-0, in the second half by a team from the Athens not in Georgia.

It was Ohio's first win against Penn State in its sixth try.

First-year Penn State Coach Bill O'Brien did afterward what any good coach would do. To spare his players, he threw himself under the media bus.

"It starts with me," O'Brien said. "I've got to coach a lot better."

It was a noble and protective act.

This will not be the Penn State that fans came to expect under Paterno, before it all imploded with the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Things will not be the same this year or next. The program has been beaten down mentally, castigated nationally and short-handed severely by NCAA sanctions designed to inflict lasting pain.

Maybe it's already working. Maybe this is the new normal.

Take nothing from Ohio because this was a game smart people knew the Bobcats could steal. Frank Solich's team, led by veteran quarterback Tyler Tettleton, won 10 games and a bowl game last year.

Solich knew his players had to fight the factors.

"We knew we were going to take on a surge from Penn State, from the fans and from the atmosphere," he said. "I told the team, 'Let's just play.' We turned it into a football game in the fourth quarter. And we just got the job done."

Ohio fell behind 14-3 but caught a huge, momentum-jerking break in the third quarter. A careless Tettleton heave, seemingly destined for interception, tipped off defender Stephen Obeng-Agyapong's hands into the waiting arms of Landry Jones.

Jones raced 43 yards for the incredible, unexpected touchdown that got Ohio back into the game. The Bobcats took the lead on Tettleton's one-yard run and ended all hometown hope when, with 2:55 left, Donte Foster caught Tettleton's perfect lead for a five-yard scoring reception.

Penn State's emotional air began to escape. Fans started to roll up their posters and exit.

Nittany Lions players walked stone-faced into the tunnel to the sound of supportive applause. A kid flashed a card that said "We Stand With You." The players then disappeared into the Beaver Stadium catacombs.

"We aren't packing this in," Penn State right guard John Urschel assured the awaiting media. "We've got a lot of football left."

O'Brien told his players to buckle down.

"We have 11 games to go," Urschel said the coach told the team. "One game doesn't make or break a season."

One game can offer glimpses off your glitches, though.

O'Brien did not appear to be in over his head in his head coaching debut. The New England Patriots offense he runs might fit the Nittany Lions fine if they don't turn it over three times every game.

Senior quarterback Matt McGloin was allowed to let loose 26 first-half passes at a program that, historically, would never think of doing that. McGloin finished having completed 27 of 48 for 260 yards and two touchdowns.

O'Brien showed all the calculated, postgame prickliness that comes with working under Bill Belichick. He responded to several questions with one word: "No."

Asked what Paterno might have thought of the team effort, O'Brien offered, "I have no idea." When a writer from Philadelphia wondered if O'Brien had trepidation that this loss could be a bad program indicator, O'Brien said, "I don't have any trepidation."

The players seem committed to O'Brien and to the cause.

"I feel like I let him down," tight end Kyle Carter said.

The Nittany Lions lack depth, with several top players transferring out after the sanctions. And scholarship reductions are coming.

Bill Belton, the man who replaced USC-transfer Silas Redd, left the game with an ankle injury. The defensive back beaten on Ohio's last touchdown is a walk-on.

O'Brien has grabbed attention and hearts. Winning, though, takes depth and talent.

"We are not defeated," Urschel, the right guard, said. "We aren't giving up."

Yeah, but Penn State lost to a MAC team. How long will the fans stay committed?

"They were a very good team," running back Derek Day said. "We shouldn't have kicked them under a rug, but we should have won. I'm not sure how the fans are going to take it."

O'Brien said last month that he was grateful the NCAA allowed Penn State play football in front of 108,000 fans. The first game, though, drew less than 100,000.

The good news is those in attendance seemed 100% in.

"We are…Penn State."

"I still get chills when I hear that chant," Day said.

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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