UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- This one really hurt. All home losses on senior day are brutal, but that's especially true at Penn State these days. As coach Bill O'Brien made it a point to mention, the 17 seniors honored at Beaver Stadium Saturday before their game against Nebraska could have left the program after the NCAA slammed Penn State with unprecedented sanctions after the Jerry Sandusky case. "They chose to stay," O'Brien said.
But, sadly, the memory of the final home game for the Penn State seniors will not be a good one. The Nittany Lions' special teams had an awful day; kicker Sam Ficken missed an extra point early and a 37-yard field goal in overtime, punter Alex Butterworth had a kick blocked in the second quarter after dropping a snap and Nebraska's Kenny Bell returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter. Three of the four plays were huge in Penn State's 23-20 overtime loss.
"My heart sank," senior guard John Urschel said. "It's a game we really wanted to win."
It has been a tough season for Penn State. There was a 44-24 loss Oct. 5 at Indiana, one of the worst losses in Penn State history. There also was a 63-14 beating Oct. 26 at Ohio State, the biggest margin of defeat for a Penn State team in 114 years.
Now, Penn State is looking at the likelihood of a non-winning season, a 6-6 finish. It plays its final game Saturday at Wisconsin. It will be a sizable underdog.
"Believe me, we're not packing it in," Urschel said. "We're going to go out and have a great week of practice. I love every single guy in that locker room. I'm going to make sure we have no regrets in this last game."
Urschel is 6 feet 3, 301 pounds.
I wasn't going to argue.
But if the Nittany Lions can't deliver on Urschel's pledge, Penn State fans shouldn't be surprised. Nor should they be disappointed with the way the season has gone. They knew the program was going to face difficult challenges after the NCAA hit it with a four-year bowl ban and a drastic reduction in scholarships. If 6-6 turns out to be rock bottom before Penn State begins to climb back, what Nittany Lions supporter can complain about the coaches and players?
O'Brien might have done a better job this season than last when Penn State went 8-4 and he was considered a Happy Valley hero for keeping the program together in his first year after the end of the Joe Paterno Dynasty. But Paterno and his immediate successor, Tom Bradley, left him with some pretty good players. Among the seniors from the 2013 class who decided to stay in the wake of the sanctions were linebacker Michael Mauti and fullback Michael Zordich. They, as much as O'Brien, willed the team to be successful.
The Penn State team this season is not as strong. It felt the sting of the scholarship reductions. Only 61 recruited scholarship players dressed against Nebraska, although 10 walk-ons also had been given scholarships. Nebraska was allowed as many as 85 scholarship players.
It really wasn't a fair fight.
The NCAA's original sanctions against Penn State called for a scholarship limit of 65 a year for four years beginning in 2014. The opinion here is the NCAA had no business punishing the Penn State program because the Sandusky case was a criminal matter, not a football matter. But punish it the NCAA did. Big time.
In September, the NCAA came to its senses just a bit when it announced it was taking its foot off Penn State's throat. Penn State will be allowed 75 scholarships next year, 80 in 2015 and the full 85 in 2016.
O'Brien will have a fighting chance.
Penn State will be competitive next season if only because it has a top quarterback. Freshman Christian Hackenberg, who believed in O'Brien's great work with quarterbacks -- Matt McGloin, anyone -- so much that he honored his commitment to Penn State after the sanctions, has had a fine season. He threw two more touchdown passes Saturday and ran for a 7-yard touchdown.
O'Brien's and Hackenberg's work next season will be easier if the Big Ten Conference's best wide receiver -- Allen Robinson -- returns. He had eight catches for 106 yards Saturday. Penn State insiders say it's 50-50 that he will pass up his senior season to enter the NFL draft in the spring.
Of course, there's no lock that O'Brien will return. The days of one coach staying forever the way Paterno did here are over. O'Brien flirted with the NFL's Cleveland Browns and Philadelphia Eagles last season. He hasn't exactly downplayed speculation that he wants to be an NFL coach one day.
It's nice to think, for Penn State's sake, that one day won't be next season for O'Brien. He has done a nice job guiding the Nittany Lions through their darkest period. It will be fun to see what he can do in the better days that surely are ahead.
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.