Penn State players appreciate fan support in what could be a trying season

Fans cheer on the Penn State football team

Fans cheer on the Penn State football team as they exit the team bus prior to a game against the Ohio Bobcats at Beaver Stadium in State College, Pa. (Sept. 1, 2012) (Credit: Matthew O'Haren)

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Long after the sting fades from yesterday's 24-14 loss to Ohio University in coach Bill O'Brien's debut as the replacement for legendary Joe Paterno, the memory Penn State defensive tackle Jordan Hill will hold dear is of the 97,186 fans who showed their love for a football program beset by controversy.

It's tradition for fans to line up outside Beaver Stadium to greet the players when they get off the buses before the game. Under Paterno, the players arrived in uniform, but O'Brien had them wear coats and ties and change at the stadium. One thing that didn't change was the groundswell of support they received.

"I'll remember getting off the bus," Hill said. "Leave the loss behind. It was like a wave of emotion and support that you felt."

The bond between Nittany Lions fans and their football team always has been strong, but the image of Penn State as a school that did it the right way was damaged by the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal that led to the firing of Paterno after 46 seasons and 409 wins. The body blows to the program continued when Paterno died in January, Sandusky was convicted in June and the program was hit with NCAA sanctions in July that include a four-year bowl ban.

After all of that, Penn State players and fans alike were elated to get back to football and show their support for their new leader, O'Brien. Only it ended badly when a 14-3 halftime lead turned into an upset loss.

"I've just got to coach a lot better," O'Brien said. "We have to do better offensively, we have to get our defense off the field and the defense has to make stops. We have to coach better, and it starts with me."

Although Ohio won 10 games last season, the Bobcats play in the Mid-American Conference, which doesn't rate with the big-boy schools in the Big Ten. So, given the way Ohio dominated the second half, O'Brien was asked if he has any trepidation about the challenges that lie ahead.

"I don't have any trepidation," he said with a determined set of his jaw.

And do the expectations change at a school accustomed to winning big? "No," he said.

Coming into the game, O'Brien did his best to make it all about football and execution, but it was impossible for his players to ignore all the controversy and passion swirling around them.

"It's been an emotional year," offensive lineman John Urschel said. "We're extremely happy to be playing football again. Obviously, we're not happy with the result, but we've got 11 games to go. One game doesn't make a season."

The fans seemed to take the same approach, cheering the players when they came off the field almost as hard as when the team entered.

"Honestly, we have the best fans in the nation," Urschel said. "They showed they care. We tried to show the country and the world that Penn State is a great place. We showed we're fighters, and we're not going to give up."

Thanks to the NCAA sanctions, Penn State lost nine players who were allowed to transfer immediately. The drop-off in manpower was evident, and it will get worse when a four-year penalty limiting the Lions to 65 scholarships, 20 below the FBS limit, starts in 2014.

But tight end Matt Lehman said: "I don't think our losses hurt us. We're all talented guys, and we have guys who can step up."

The results argued otherwise, but the Nittany Lions vowed to meet the future with renewed determination. "There's no easy way out now," senior defensive tackle Jordan Hill said. "I'm going to push the all season. We're out to win."

As they move forward, it's hard to tell if the emotional turmoil will ease or if it will increase should losses come more frequently.

"Our team has been through a lot, but we kept our heads on straight," running back Derek Day said. "We've faced quite a bit of adversity, so, I don't think one loss is going to get us down or ruin the season."

That's the hope, but there's a long rough road stretching ahead of the Nittany Lions.

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