STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — If they didn’t know better, fans in Happy Valley would have thought they were watching Joe Paterno’s team.
No. 12 Penn State played tough defense and basic offense. The Nittany Lions fought back when they were down, trying to rally from a 17-point deficit against No. 19 Nebraska on Saturday.
But on a day when the outcome was secondary, Penn State began the journey forward from a devastating scandal and the firing of Paterno with a draining loss, 17-14 to the Cornhuskers.
The game closed a tumultuous week that began with the arrest of former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky on shocking child sexual abuse charges. Major college football’s winningest coach was pushed out in the aftermath.
“I was awful proud,” said interim coach Tom Bradley, who took over for the 84-year-old Paterno. “They got down 17-0. They didn’t quit. They hung tough.”
No one would have blamed the Nittany Lions (8-2, 5-1 Big Ten) if they decided to pack it in. But they didn’t.
Time expired after a fourth-down pass by Matt McGloin fell harmlessly to the ground. McGloin and his teammates soon turned toward the tunnel to file back to the locker room. Most were silent. Some had blank stares.
Afterward, linebacker Nate Stupar was heartened the team ended up following Paterno’s advice.
“(Bradley) kept saying, ‘Beat Nebraska. Do what JoePa said,'” said Stupar, who had a team-high 13 tackles. “Be a team and you’ll be teammates for life and just keep that goal in mind. No matter what, stick together. That’s what we did today.”
Rex Burkhead ran for 121 yards and a touchdown for Nebraska (8-2, 4-2) before the Nittany Lions scored 14 points on two second-half touchdown runs by Stephfon Green. But a key drive ended when Silas Redd was stopped on the fourth down with 1:49 left at the Penn State 38.
School president Rod Erickson met the Nittany Lions in the locker room afterward and praised, “how much courage, how much heart, and how much character” the players had, he said.
Most Penn State fans heeded calls for a “blueout,” wearing the school’s familiar dark blue in support of victims of child sexual abuse. Fans formed the outline of a blue ribbon in the student section.
“We are … Penn State,” roared the crowd through the afternoon, the signature State College cheer.
But this school’s identity has forever changed.
“I think today it just made the healing process start to begin,” Bradley said.
Sandusky, architect of the “Linebacker U.” defenses, was charged last weekend with sexually abusing eight boys over 15 years. The athletic director and a university vice president were charged with perjury and failure to report a 2002 allegation to police, and Paterno was fired following mounting fury he did not do more about the charge — that Sandusky assaulted a boy in the Penn State football showers — than pass it along to his bosses. President Graham Spanier also was ousted for similar reasons.
The last time Penn State played a game at Beaver Stadium, on Oct. 29, Paterno was feted by Spanier for his 409th career victory, the most in Division I history.
On Saturday, he was nowhere to be found — save for a few fleeting images on the video boards overhead. That was enough to get spontaneous cheers of “Joe Paterno!” ringing through the stands.
“In my opinion and a lot of others’ opinion he’s still going to be the best football coach who ever coached in college,” receiver Derek Moye said “It was an honor for me to play for him.”
Paterno started as an assistant in 1950, then took over as head coach in 1966. It was Penn State’s first game without Paterno on staff since Nov. 19, 1949, a 19-0 loss at Pittsburgh.
But in many respects, it was like any other fall Saturday in Happy Valley. Massive 6-foot-5 defensive tackle Devon Still hit ball carriers with typical ferocity and the Nittany Lions played another close, low-scoring game — as they have all year.
Penn State’s first play from scrimmage was a fullback run up the middle — a Paterno favorite.
But the Nittany Lions’ conservative offense struggled again. In the late-game sequence that ended with Redd getting smothered on fourth down, Penn State called four straight running plays.
Meanwhile, someone named “Paterno” wore a path on the sideline wearing jet black Nike sneakers.
Just not that Paterno.
Paterno’s son, quarterback coach Jay Paterno, moved down from his usual spot in the press box to relay plays from the sideline — a job once held by assistant coach Mike McQueary.
Where was Joe? It’s uncertain, though he pulled into the garage at his home a couple of hours after the final gun.
“He wanted to make sure that the guys he coached and the guys he felt very close to would understand that he was part of us,” Jay Paterno said. “He still wanted to be part of this and he was pulling for them and cheering for them.”
McQueary was among the missing after being placed on indefinite paid leave Friday by the school. His name surfaced as a grand jury witness to the 2002 abuse charge. Sandusky, who retired in 1999 but lives in the area and had access to school facilities, maintains his innocence.
McQueary, Joe Paterno says, told him that Sandusky had behaved inappropriately, but not to the extent of the detailed testimony. Paterno then passed the information on to Curley, but the report was not given to police.
News of the scandal elicited threats to McQueary, the school said, and brought heightened security.
But there were no visible problems during the game.
“I’ll be honest with you, going into this football game, I didn’t think the game should have been played — for a lot of different reasons,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. “I look at my job as a football coach is to educate, and to prepare the kids that come into the program for life.”
By the second half, most Penn State fans seemed most concerned about whether the Nittany Lions could get back into the game.
The Corhuskers had surged early, with Burkhead gashing Penn State’s staunch D on 25 carries. He motored 14 yards into the end zone with 8:51 left in the third quarter for a 17-0 lead.
Then came the second-half push from Green on Senior Day — his last game at Beaver Stadium.
The senior scored from 5 yards out with 5:07 in the third quarter, then added a 6-yard run at 5:42 of the fourth to get Penn State within three. Green finished with 71 yards on 17 carries.
But the offense faltered on two late drives, including the fourth-and-1 stop of Redd. Out of timeouts with 49 seconds left, the Nittany Lions got the ball back but could get no farther than their own 46 before McGloin’s final incompletion as time expired.
The fans cheered anyway, and greeted the Nittany Lions with one more chorus of “We are … Penn State.”