PSU's goal is to reach 'Next Level' this season

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Like any college football team in August, Penn State must start from scratch this season, search for its purpose.

The difference between Penn State and the hundred or so other teams is Penn State must move forward from the year of "move forward" -- be the second act to a standard set by a team that was in turmoil while sifting through the lingering pieces of the Jerry Sandusky mess that caused the turmoil.

This season is the season after that season, the one in which players feared they wouldn't have any teammates left at the beginning and by the end watched as Penn State unveiled the year "2012" in bold blue numbers on the eastern façade of Beaver Stadium, next to a bunch of years signifying a time when championships were won.

That season everything was new (players' names on the jerseys) and mysterious (who exactly was this Bill O'Brien guy?) and even dangerous in the football sense (they're going for it on fourth down!). The football team stood as representatives of change, feeling the brunt of a smattering of emotions tethered to an uncertain future.

Gratitude: Merchants began hanging up signs that read, "Proud To Support Penn State Football."

Anger: At the first game, you didn't have to walk too far around the stadium to hear Penn State fans taunting and cursing at ESPN cameramen.

Excitement: "Billieve" was the slogan du jour.

More gratitude: The students wore T-shirts for those who stayed and the players reciprocated, saying they stayed to play for those fans.

And now that season has shifted into the past.

"It's over with," running back Zach Zwinak said. "It's over."

Everything but the distractions, that is.

The lawsuit filed by the Paterno family, university trustees and former players slowly wobbles through the courts. Penn State is settling Sandusky victims' lawsuits. Undoubtedly come September, the trustees will be pestered at their next public meeting about the legacy of Joe Paterno and the NCAA sanctions, an unending topic of conversation.

Like a bear trap, those sanctions clamp around and debilitate the football team. Championships are not possible, not for the Big Ten Conference and not on the national stage. Penn State can't qualify for the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl. Any traditional benchmark that might validate success or reward hard work is unavailable (and they can't etch the year 2013 onto Beaver Stadium, either).

"People ask us all the time," said O'Brien, the coach. "What do you have to play for?"

So O'Brien crafted a shiny motto to answer the question. It is "Next Level." Some of the players recite these words when asked about the team's general attitude toward this season.

Tackle Garry Gilliam said you will hear the phrase probably a thousand times. To explain the motto, running back Akeel Lynch said that every year brings with it a different team. In other words, this can't be last year because this year is this year.

In less than 30 minutes at his Tuesday news conference, O'Brien said some variation of this comment four times (in fairness, he was asked questions necessitating such an answer about eight times). Through his repetition, he emphasized his belief of the individuality of this season.

Season 2 of the sanctioned era matters to him and to Lynch, Gilliam and all the others because even absent championships or an emotional rally that defined 2012, this season is a football season. And the advent of another season means football will be played, a purpose in itself.

"We've got the opportunity," cornerback Trevor Williams said, "to do that every week."


Mark Dent:, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05.


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