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Rudel: Lions’ heartbeat rings a bell

October 7, 2012
By Neil Rudel (nrudel@altoonamirror.com) , The Altoona Mirror

UNIVERSITY PARK - All that's been taken away from the Penn State football team has been well-documented, and rather than ruin your breakfast with an overdose of NCAA rehash, let's shift to what hasn't been taken away.

And that's the Nittany Lions' collective heart.

It never beat louder than it did Saturday as Penn State overcame two huge special-teams mistakes - which usually add up to a loss - and rallied from an 11-point deficit by outscoring the Wildcats, 22-0, in the fourth quarter to erase Northwestern from the unbeaten ranks with a resounding 39-28 victory.

The game was wildly entertaining, and as each of the Lions rang the victory bell and hooted their way up the Beaver Stadium tunnel and into the PSU locker room, it was clear this moment was more than a year in the making.

"It's fun," Bill O'Brien said, "to see smiles on their faces."

More than anyone, O'Brien has put them there by installing a gambling offense that is maximizing its parts - the Lions have now gone for it on fourth down 20 times this year (making 13) - while riding a defense that Saturday was once again outstanding.

"Heart, desire - both sides of the ball," was Gerald Hodges' explanation, "and including the coaches. They hit all the bases today."

Saturday marked Penn State's fourth-straight win, but the first in which the Lions were overly taxed.

A costly fumble by punt returner Jesse Della Valle exhausted the momentum the Nits had built in the first half and gift-wrapped Northwestern's 17-yard touchdown drive that cut the Lions' lead to 10-7. That was followed by Venric Mark's 75-yard punt return late in the third quarter that extended the Wildcats' lead to 28-17.

"After the punt return, our staff and myself tried to talk to the players to get them going," O'Brien said of the Lions' momentary and inevitable emotional lapse. "We had another quarter to play, and we felt we could move the ball."

There was no doubt about that, much to the relief of, among others, Della Valle.

"When we were down in the fourth quarter," Della Valle said, "I think everyone saw that [team] heart."

O'Brien was as intense as his players.

After a highly questionable pass-interference call went against Stephon Morris and kept alive Northwestern's second touchdown drive, O'Brien came onto the field to check on Morris, who had been shaken up a couple of plays later.

O'Brien used the opportunity to bark at the officials, and after Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald appeared to object and urged a penalty flag be thrown, O'Brien appeared to direct some unpleasantries his way, too.

Asked about it afterward, O'Brien coyly ducked it and said he was only checking on Morris.

Morris didn't remember the exchange, or the first half for that matter, but said the Lions feel "everyone is our rivals."

"We really have no friends in this conference," he said. "The whole Big Ten [TV] crew had us losing this game. We just want to prove to the world each and every week."

"Everything we've been through, people still knocking us down, it's made us closer as a family," Hodges said. "If we drop a punt, or let up a score we've been through so much that those things aren't going to break us apart."

Indeed, Penn State got stronger as the game went on, running 35 plays in the fourth quarter to Northwestern's 12 - an indication of the team's resolve.

"We knew it, but it was good to see it - that we're not going to give up," fullback and senior leader Mike Zordich said. "We gave up some plays and gave them field position, but it's good to see nobody put their head down - and that's what this team does, just moves forward.

"We might not be able to play for a bowl game or a national championship, but we're still hungry and still have a lot to prove."

And that their hearts, broken in July by penalties for acts they had nothing to do with, are apparently mending just fine.

Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or nrudel@altoonamirror.com.

 
 

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