Forty-six weeks – a total of 322 days – separated Joe Paterno's last victory at Penn State and Bill O’Brien's first.
In between, Paterno’s 409th victory was vacated. O’Brien’s program was almost vanquished. And, well … you know the rest of the story.
So, what was the toughest part of it all?
Losing. To Ohio. To Virginia. After leading in both games. “The low point would be losing the last two games,” said junior guard Eric Shrive. “They were heartbreaking for us.
“The events that happened the past several months brought us down. Our hearts go out to the victims. But we came here to do two things: to get an education and play Division I football. We’re a tough bunch of guys and this win is really going to boost our spirits.”
To enjoy the zenith is to also remember the nadir. For members of the team, the low point came at different times. And for one player, not at all.
Penn State cornerback Stephon Morris is 10 inches shorter than Shrive, but on one point they see eye-to-eye. For Morris, the toughest time was not the sanctions, not the departure of some former teammates, not all the new schemes and training programs and coaches. Difficult, sure. Challenging, of course. But …
“The lowest point was not winning that first game,” said Morris on Saturday. “Everything we went through the past 10 months, going into that game we wanted to win for all of Penn State. It was the lowest point of my career. That loss hurt us – bad.”
But the damage was not irreparable. (See Navy, victory, 34-7.)
“Coach O’Brien said to put it in the past,” Morris said. “He always says, ‘Play the next play.’ ”
For seniors Mike Farrell and Jordan Hill, there was a time after the NCAA sanctions hit when their confidence wavered. For Farrell it was only for a short while; for Hill, the impact lasted longer.
Said Farrell: “There might have been a second there that if we were without leadership that the sanctions could have been a low point. It has been a fight since then, but there really hasn’t been a low point because of the leadership we have from the coaching staff and what we are trying to do as a team. There’s been no head down, struggle, low point of it all.”
Added Hill: “Those two weeks after we found out about the sanctions were the toughest. That was the first time since everything happened that impacted us as players directly – where we had to make decisions.
“It was sad when everything came out. After Joe passed away, it was hard. Then we had guys trickling away and we didn’t know what to think about. But we were always sticking together as a team.”
Stan Hixon, the team’s receivers coach and assistant head coach, came to Penn State in January after spending the previous eight seasons coaching with Buffalo and Washington in the NFL.
Six months later, just as Hixon was getting ready to take a well-deserved break, his first in a half year, the news hit: “The low point for me was before I went on vacation and listened to the Freeh report. But we’ve come a long way since then. We tell (the players), ‘The best is yet to come.’ We’re getting better. I think we’ll be OK.”
The players think so, too. Much more than conventional wisdom might dictate. Of course, there’s been little conventional about the past year. Outside the locker room, anyway. Every time a player leaves the squad, it’s national news, with the departure inevitably appearing on the crawl running across the screen on ESPN. But to hear Hill tell it, at this point it is no big deal.
“The people who are here now want to be here now. That’s why we have so much fun. This is a close team,” Hill said. “Shawney (Kersey, who left the team last week) is one of my friends, but that’s a decision he had to make. We weren’t caught off-guard by it. When that happens, we know what’s really going on.”
Farrell waves off any thinking that the Lions needed to win – and must continue to do so – so that their hard work, commitment and buy-in of O’Brien are validated.
“I understand that from an outside perspective, you could say winning is needed to validate those things,” Farrell said. “But we believe in the staff here, the coaches, offensive scheme, the defense – all those things you have to buy into as players.
“We bought into that a long time ago. We all were in on that. But we still needed a win.”
Penn State Football Notebook: Zordich Goes to O'Brien for Increased Role in Offense (Sept. 16, 2012)
Penn State Football: McGloin Believes Robinson Will Remain Loyal to the Program (Sept. 15, 2012)
Penn State Football: The Catch About Paul Jones (Sept. 14, 2012)