Lions on verge of a winning season

UNIVERSITY PARK – As broadcaster Steve Jones frequently says, the NCAA sanctions were levied in an attempt to wreck the Penn State football program.

Bill O’Brien and the Nittany Lions already have done so many things to prevent that, and Saturday they have a chance to clinch a second consecutive winning season despite having the sanctions lingering over them.

There are several teams in the Big Ten that seldom or rarely finish above .500 even with 85 scholarships, so if the Lions can beat Nebraska on Saturday for their seventh win, it would represent nothing short of a terrific accomplishment.

The issue for PSU (6-4, 3-3 Big Ten) is that if the seventh victory doesn’t come this weekend, the odds of having a winning season will be slim since it closes at No. 16 Wisconsin next week and likely will be a prohibitive underdog.

“Any time you can have a winning season, I think it’s important to help you going into the offseason and things like that. No question about it,” O’Brien said.

“But I think the goal on Saturday is, it’s not about clinching a winning season, it’s about going out there and doing everything we can against a really, really tough, good, Nebraska team to help our seniors go out winners. That’s the big deal to me.”

Penn State went 8-4 last season, defying the odds in the first year of the sanctions, but this year the team has faced more obstacles because of a depleted roster that includes only 61 scholarship players.

“It means a lot. I’m a football player, I came here to win,” center Ty Howle said. “That’s one of the reasons I came here to Penn State because at Penn State you’re going to win.”

Many people believed Penn State couldn’t win because of the sanctions, but signature victories over Wisconsin last season and Michigan this year will be some of the best memories for a senior class that will play its final home game Saturday.

More important than having a winning season, Howle noted, is “the process” that the players went through this season to get to this point.

“How we went through the season and how game by game we’ve grown as a team is probably the most important part,” Howle said.

The next two weeks will, in many ways, define what kind of season this will be for the Lions, but O’Brien is in no position to look at that big picture just yet leading up to a game.

“We are completely focused on Nebraska,” he said when asked about the next two weeks. “I understand the question, but we, I mean, believe me, we are not thinking one minute about Wisconsin, I can promise you that.

“This Nebraska team is a really good team. We’re taking it one practice at a time, one day at a time, and just very, very focused on Nebraska. I don’t try to define seasons. I leave that up to you guys [in the media].”

SUBHD: Leaving early

Tackle Garry Gilliam, defensive tackle Kyle Baublitz and receiver Alex Kenney will give up their final season of eligibility and will be announced with the seniors Saturday. Baublitz announced his decision after Saturday’s win over Purdue, and the news about Gilliam and Kenney came out Tuesday.

Losing Gilliam figures to be big since the offensive line also will lose seniors Howle and guard John Urschel.

O’Brien said he has met with all three players and was not surprised with their decisions, although he would not discuss details of what went into the process.

Gilliam and Baublitz have been contributors this season, but Kenney has essentially been a non-factor. The speedster from State College came to PSU with a lot of promise, but things never really worked out for him, and now he’s giving up his final season.

Kenney had 17 catches for 172 yards last year but has only three catches for 25 yards this season and rarely sees the field.

“He’s shown up to practice every week, he’s played hard, practiced hard and done everything we’ve asked him to do,” O’Brien said. “He’s a great kid, just a really good kid in our program and a local guy. It hasn’t probably worked out for him on the field as much as he would have liked it to. But he’s done everything we’ve asked him to do. Can’t say enough good things about Alex.”

SUBHD: Past is past

It’s been two years since the Sandusky scandal first happened, and Nebraska was the first opponent after that. There was the memorable pregame prayer involving both teams before that game, orchestrated by Huskers assistant coach Ron Brown.

“It seems like it was so long ago that everything happened,” safety Malcolm Willis said when asked if the players ever still think about the scandal.

Howle said the players have “put that behind us.”

“Honestly, we don’t ever even talk about it, we don’t ever even mention it,” he said. “But I know going through it it shaped a lot of us and made us stronger.”