Cook: Even a loss can't spoil PSU's day
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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Quarterback Matt McGloin took blame for a number of misfired passes and an offense that couldn't score a point in the second half. Linebacker Michael Mauti took responsibility for a defense that couldn't force a turnover and allowed 11 of 12 third-down conversions in the final two quarters. Bill O'Brien, 0-1 as a college head coach, said to hold him accountable for all of it, mentioning at least a dozen times that he needs to do a better job coaching up his players.
It would be easy to rip 'em all after Penn State's 24-14 to Ohio Saturday at Beaver Stadium, but that would draw a 15-yard penalty for unnecessary roughness. This game, this one game, wasn't about which team won and lost. It was about Penn State football being back on the field and out of the national news.
It felt good.
It felt right.
None of the 97,186 fans at Beaver Stadium needed to apologize for having fun. That they enjoyed themselves -- the final score aside -- in one of the all-time great environments for college football didn't make them sympathetic to Jerry Sandusky, the Penn State defensive coordinator-turned local icon-turned convicted pedophile. It didn't make them less heartbroken for Sandusky's innocent victims. And it didn't make them more tolerant of those in power at Penn State who covered up Sandusky's crimes.
It just meant they were ready to get on with their life, as we all have to do even after the worst and saddest of tragedies.
There's something wrong with that?
Those who argued the NCAA should have shut down the Penn State football program should have been here on this gorgeous late-summer day. They would have seen the power a game -- nothing more than a game -- has to heal. No, it didn't help Sandusky's victims. Nothing will help them now. But it helped the Penn State players, who had nothing to do with Sandusky's crimes and very much needed this day, all but the final score, anyway. And it helped the Penn State fans, who remain proud of their university and refuse to allow it to be defiled by one sexual predator and those few men who helped him get away with his sexual assaults with their silence. It made them feel so much better to be able to show their support for the players who stayed at Penn State rather than transfer.
"You stayed with us ... We stand with you!" the signs read in the stands.
"The atmosphere was awesome," Mauti said. "They were out of control. People were crazy, which is what our fans do."
Mauti meant that as a compliment, by the way.
The fans came early and stayed late. They tailgated. They were loud and faithful even as the game slipped away from Penn State in the second half. They would have loved a home team win, but, clearly, they were glad they came.
The moments immediately before the game were emotional. There wasn't one mention of former legendary Penn State coach Joe Paterno, who was accused in the Freeh Report of playing a significant role in the cover-up for Sandusky. Instead, after the national anthem, there was a wonderfully planned moment of reflection "for the victims of child-sex abuse and those who have endured suffering and loss. You are in our hearts today." The message came through clearly and resonated: The Sandusky victims will never be forgotten. When the Penn State Blue Band followed with the school alma mater, you would have had to be near death not to be touched.
"May no act of ours bring shame to one heart that loves thy name. May our lives but swell thy fame, Dear old State, Dear old State."
OK, so the game that followed wasn't nearly as mesmerizing. Penn State running back Bill Belton, trying to fill in for former star Silas Redd, who transferred to Southern California, lost a fumble at the Ohio 21 before leaving with what could be a serious leg injury. Punt returner Gerald Hodges, who, amazingly, doubles as a starting linebacker, lost a fumble at the Penn State 13. Wide receiver Shawney Kersey failed to make a diving catch of a long McGloin pass inside the Ohio 5. The defense couldn't stop Ohio from going 93 yards in 14 plays to score the clinching touchdown with 2:44 left.
But maybe the most hurtful play for Penn State was a deflected pass. Safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong went for the interception only to see the ball clang off his hands to Ohio receiver Landon Smith, who completed the 43-yard touchdown play to cut Penn State's lead to 14-10 early in the third quarter. It brought back memories of a similarly tipped pass at Beaver Stadium in 1999 which led to Minnesota beating No. 2 and 9-0 Penn State, 24-23, costing Paterno a potential third national championship.
"We've got to do better offensively," O'Brien said. "We've got to get our defense off the field. Our defense has got to make stops ...
"It all starts with me. I've got to coach a lot better. We've got to do a lot better with these kids than we did today."
O'Brien's accountability was nice, but it became excessive after the fourth or fifth reference. It really wasn't necessary at all after this game.
Penn State plays Saturday at Virginia.
"What our fans can expect is a team that's going to prepare hard, practice hard and play hard and do whatever it takes to get better," McGloin said.
There will be plenty of opportunities to criticize O'Brien and the Penn State players if they fail against Virginia or in the games that follow.
This wasn't the day.
This day was too good for that.
First Published September 2, 2012 12:00 am