Penn State turn­around big for se­niors

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - SPORTS - By Travis John­son

STATE COL­LEGE >> Big, blue num­bers that line the suites at Beaver Sta­dium honor the years of Penn State’s un­beaten, na­tional cham­pi­onship and Big Ten win­ning squads. Among the years listed is 2012, but not be­cause of game re­sults — that team fin­ished sec­ond in its con­fer­ence and wasn’t al­lowed to play in a bowl.

That num­ber hon­ors the play­ers who stuck around to help the Nit­tany Lions re­build af­ter the Jerry San­dusky child abuse scandal, when NCAA sanctions pun­ish­ing the school for mis­han­dling the case meant they could trans­fer eas­ily with­out los­ing el­i­gi­bil­ity, to play else­where un­hin­dered by schol­ar­ship and bowl re­stric­tions.

Most play­ers — many re­cruited by leg­endary coach Joe Paterno, who was fired, then died be­fore the pun­ish­ments were levied — stuck with a pro­gram that some be­lieved no longer de­served to ex­ist.

Seven play­ers who were true fresh­men on that team are now se­niors play­ing in their last game at Beaver Sta­dium when No. 8 Penn State (9-2, 7-1 Big Ten, No. 8 CFP) plays Michi­gan State (3-8, 1-7) on Satur­day. Four more were in­com­ing re­cruits.

“These are the guys that stuck with this pro­gram and helped lead the pro­gram Penn State quar­ter­back Tommy Stevens, sec­ond from right, cel­e­brates with his team­mates af­ter scor­ing a touch­down against Rut­gers on Satur­day. through prob­a­bly one of the dark­est times that it’s ever seen and one of the dark­est times that a pro­gram’s ever seen in col­lege foot­ball his­tory,” sopho­more quar­ter­back Trace McSor­ley said. “These se­niors were com­pletely in­stru­men­tal in keeping this pro­gram alive and get­ting the pro­gram through ev­ery­thing.”

Now, they have a chance to add their fi­nal year to the sta­dium’s grey fa­cade be­cause of vic­to­ries on the field.

Win­ners of seven straight, the Nit­tany Lions can clinch a berth in the Big Ten cham­pi­onship with a vic­tory and an Ohio State win over Michi­gan. Penn State play­ers will likely know the re­sult be­fore their game kicks off.

Se­nior line­backer Bran­don Bell, who com­mit­ted to Penn State in the wake of the San­dusky scandal, ad­mit­ted ear­lier this year he didn’t think the Nit­tany Lions would re­turn to na­tional rel­e­vance dur­ing his ca­reer.

“It’s great to be in the con­ver­sa­tion,” Bell said. “Com­ing here, stay­ing here, the cir­cum­stances didn’t mat­ter. We wanted to be suc­cess­ful. We knew that wasn’t go­ing to be easy.”

Penn State’s sud­den as­cent fol­low­ing three­straight seven-win sea­sons can be traced to its fo­cus. Coach James Franklin has main­tained his all sea­son, never crack­ing when asked about rank­ings or big-pic­ture sce­nar­ios, in­stead opt­ing to talk sim­ply about the op­po­nent for that week.

“None of that mat­ters if we don’t han­dle on busi­ness on Satur­day,” Franklin said. “Af­ter the game is over, then we’ll find out kind of what your next step in our jour­ney is.”

Franklin said he has yet to dis­cuss with his staff whether to show the Ohio State-Michi­gan game on the Beaver Sta­dium video boards as his play­ers warm up. He says he knows his play­ers will be aware of it, re­gard­less.

Be­fore a pos­si­ble con­fer­ence ti­tle game, and a chance to per­haps reach the Col­lege Foot­ball Play­off, is the work of play­ing Michi­gan State, se­nior de­fen­sive end Evan Sch­wan said.

“As a fresh­man, I never thought that I’d be sit­ting here talk­ing to you guys about what lies ahead,” Sch­wan said.

MEL EVANS — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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