Ayear ago Monday, the Penn State universe was changed forever.
That's when the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal exploded, hurling shrapnel in every direction. The grime and dust from that detonation still hasn't completely cleared, but it has left the reputation of one of the nation's great universities eternally stained.
The details of the past 12 months don't need to be recounted here. The sad, sordid facts have been seared into the brains of every Pennsylvanian, especially those who attended Penn State.
Now that we are just more than 52 weeks removed from the initial charges, it seems like a reasonable time to assess the impact of the scandal on PSU football.
Surprisingly, the Nittany Lion program has survived the past year better than anyone could have reasonably expected.
If NCAA president Mark Emmert and PSU president Rodney Erickson are to be believed, the Lions narrowly escaped the death penalty, but were still hit with sanctions of unprecedented severity. Despite those devastating penalties, the Lions have compiled a 6-3 record this season, including a 4-1 mark in the Big Ten.
That borders on the remarkable.
Talent not great: After all, even before the sanctions were handed down, this was never going to be an especially talented PSU team. It wasn't packed with NFL-caliber players. At best, the Lions would have owned a slightly above average Big Ten roster.
That solid-but-not-great roster, however, took a major blow when the NCAA allowed all PSU players to transfer immediately without having to sit out a season. The Lions' two best returning offensive skill players (running back Silas Redd and wideout Justin Brown) quickly bolted, as did one of the Big Ten's top kickers (Anthony Fera).
Still, Penn State has managed to perform quite admirably this fall. The Lions have played hard and played smart nearly every Saturday, and they've shown constant improvement.
That can mostly be attributed to two things -- a strong, unified group of seniors and new head coach Bill O'Brien.
Seniors Michael Mauti and Michael Zordich, among others, helped hold this team together when it could have easily disintegrated. Years from now, Penn State fans will fondly remember these Lion seniors as some of the best leaders in program history.
O'Brien, meanwhile, has exceeded the expectations of even the most ardent members of Nittany Nation. He is -- justifiably -- a contender for national and Big Ten coach-of-the-year honors.
Off the field, he's said and done all the right things nearly every step the way. On the field, he's been inspiring, innovative and unafraid. He's even won over many of the most-ardent Joe Paterno supporters, who were infuriated after the legendary coach got unceremoniously pushed out last November by the PSU Board of Trustees.
Attendance, while down slightly this season, still ranks among the nation's best at 98,649 per game. Given all that's occurred since last November, and the highly unpopular new season-ticket plan that was implemented a few years back, that number is relatively stunning.
Recruiting hurting: This is not to say that Penn State football is out of the woods -- far from it. The real impact on the NCAA penalties -- especially the scholarship reductions and the bowl bans -- have yet to be fully felt.
Recruiting is suffering. The 2012 recruiting class was average at best, ranking seventh in the Big Ten. The 2013 class is trending in a similar direction, currently ranked eighth in the Big Ten.
O'Brien has already shown the ability to "coach up" players of average ability. He's even turned the much-maligned Matt McGloin into a more-than-serviceable quarterback. O'Brien also seems to attract high-character kids with strong motors. They will serve him well.
But talented players still win football games, and Penn State may be sorely lacking in that area for the next several years. Four- and five-star recruits, typically, aren't going to commit to a school that can't go to bowls or win championships.
Depth will also continue to be a serious concern in future falls. This year's Penn State team has been surprisingly free of major injuries. O'Brien better hope that trend continues, especially with just 65 scholarships available each year. Those scholarship limitations also make it imperative that Penn State not "miss" on any recruits. Everyone on the roster -- walk-ons included -- will need to contribute.
So yes, there are still huge challenges ahead for O'Brien and the Nittany Lions. In fact, a strong argument could be made that the 2012 PSU team may be the program's best one for the next several years.
Still, given the events of the past 12 months, the Penn State football program appears to be in surprisingly decent shape.
After the sanctions were handed down this summer, it became fashionable to predict that Penn State would turn into a football black hole for years -- maybe decades -- to come. Some of those prognostications even came from this corner.
A few months later, however, those predictions of doom seem overstated.
O'Brien looks like he has Penn State positioned to at least be competitive in the Big Ten over the next several years. It helps that the Big Ten is not particularly strong right now, and that's unlikely to change anytime soon. The balance of power in college football has swung decisively to the south and west.
And five years from now, when Penn State is finally free from the NCAA sanctions, O'Brien may have the Lions poised to again become a Big Ten power. That's assuming, of course, that O'Brien is still in Happy Valley. That may be a pretty big assumption. His success in State College to date is sure to attract suitors, both in college football and possibly the NFL. But that's a topic for down the road.
For now, O'Brien has Penn State football on relatively stable ground.
Considering what has transpired since Nov. 5, 2011, that is a truly amazing achievement.
Steve Heiser is sports editor of The York Dis patch. He can be reached at sheiser@yorkdis patch.com or at 854-1575, ext. 455.