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 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.
A title is possible: 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 three-straight 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.