STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - The saddest and strangest week in the history of not just college football, but colleges period, ends Saturday with an actual game.
However, not one person knows for sure what to expect when Penn State and Nebraska meet at Beaver Stadium with the wreckage caused by the child sexual-abuse scandal still smoldering.
It wasn't that long ago that everyone was looking forward to watching the Nittany Lions try to remain unbeaten in the Big Ten Conference and maintain their lead in the Leaders Division. Now, seven days after the arrest of former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky on 40 counts of abusing young boys, and three days after the firing of iconic head coach Joe Paterno, the game doesn't seem significant.
Yet the game is significant to Penn State's 20 seniors, who established a goal at the start of the season of winning the conference championship and who had nothing to do with the Sandusky arrest or any cover-up that may have existed while the alleged crimes took place.
Of course, there have been calls to cancel the game, or for Penn State to forfeit it. But the game should serve to help in the very early stages of the healing process while allowing fans to honor the victims of the attacks by wearing blue.
There will be more football questions down the line, such as how the Nittany Lions will handle their final two games - road trips to Ohio State and Wisconsin - and whether the new administration will approve a bowl bid. But Penn State has to get through Saturday first.
This is uncharted territory.
One indication of the crowd's enthusiasm will be how it responds to the pregame show by the terrific Penn State Blue Band. The playing of the alma mater should be dramatic, particularly when the band comes to the line, "May no act of ours bring shame," a chilling reminder of what happened. That will be followed by the famed floating lion formation, and you can expect fans to sing the university's fight songs with more fervor than usual.
We did a few radio interviews this week with Nebraska stations in which the prevailing question was, "Will our fans be safe if they wear red?" The response: Absolutely. A few knuckleheads made an entire student body look bad Wednesday night and early Thursday as they "reacted" to Paterno's firing. Students and adults alike won't allow a repeat of the misconduct and will put their best foot forward Saturday, particularly in front of an ESPN national audience. It also helps that the game begins at noon, and fans will be leaving the stadium in the daylight.
Twenty seniors will be honored during Senior Day ceremonies before the game, walking out with parents and family. It certainly will be a bittersweet occasion without Paterno. "What he's instilled in me has helped me as a grown man," offensive tackle Quinn Barham said. "I'm 22 now. Coming in, I was a 17-year-old kid. It's tough. I'd like to shake his hand on Senior Day, but I can't do that."
Rich Mauti, a wide receiver who played for Paterno in the mid 1970s, e-mailed and texted many former players early in the week to come out Saturday in a show of support for the coach. Even with Paterno not there, they still plan to line the sideline. Former wide receiver O.J. McDuffie said he thought the alums would outnumber the current Penn State players. Said linebacker Michael Mauti, Rich's son: "You're going to see a lot of guys come down and support us. I think they've been there all along and they want to be there now more than ever."
With former defensive coordinator Tom Bradley now in charge of the entire team, the coaching assignments have been shuffled a bit. Bradley has named defensive line coach Larry Johnson and linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden as co-coordinators. Graduate assistant Elijah Robinson has been promoted to full-time assistant. With receivers coach Mike McQueary on administrative leave, it appears as if Terrell Golden, a graduate assistant on offense, will take over many of McQueary's duties.
Saturday won't be the first time Bradley has been in charge on the sideline. With Paterno watching most games this season from the press box because of lingering pain from injuries suffered in a collision at practice in the preseason, Bradley has been the Lions' primary voice on the sideline. "We've functioned with Coach in the box before," Bradley said. "It will be business as usual on that sideline on Saturday."
Although there is no organized plan to honor Paterno before, during, or after the game, the players are considering a way. They have discussed a strategy to visit his home after the game, should the Nittany Lions win, and present him with the game ball. "Obviously, if there's a tribute, there's nothing I can do about that," Bradley said when asked about it Thursday.
Former Florida coach Urban Meyer remains the favorite to succeed Paterno as head coach. But he won't be in the Beaver Stadium TV booth as scheduled Saturday because of the death of his father, Bud, in Gainesville, Fla.
The game will match up two of the Big Ten's best running backs in Penn State's Silas Redd and Nebraska's Rex Burkhead. Redd is 18th in the FBS in rushing with a 111.8-yard average, having reached the 1,000-yard mark in the Lions' most recent game two weeks ago against Illinois. Burkhead is 21st, averaging 105.7 yards. But Penn State also has to be aware of Cornhuskers quarterback Tyler Martinez, who has rushed for 79.1 yards per game.
The Penn State defense, under Bradley, has been one of the best in the nation this season, with the Lions ranking in the top 10 in three of the four most important defensive categories, including third in points allowed (12.4 points per game) and eighth in yards allowed (282.3). The Nebraska defense, dubbed the Black Shirts, has allowed 23.1 points and 349.4 total yards.
1. LSU 9-0
2. Oklahoma State 9-0
3. Stanford 9-0
4. Alabama 8-1
5. Oregon 8-1
6. Oklahoma 8-1
7. Boise State 8-0
8. Virginia Tech 9-1
9. Houston 10-0
10. Clemson 8-1
- Joe Juliano
Nebraska at Penn State, noon, ESPN, WNTP-AM (990), WNPV-AM (1440): Given the emotions on campus in the wake of the child sexual-abuse scandal, no one knows exactly what to expect when kickoff finally arrives.
Penn at Harvard, noon, Versus: The Quakers need a win to stay in the race for their third consecutive Ivy League championship; the Crimson are the only unbeaten team in league play.
Oklahoma State at Texas Tech, noon, 6ABC: The high-flying Cowboys might be wary because the Red Raiders knocked off Oklahoma's other big team, but Tech has been outscored by 93-27 in two games since then.
Michigan State at Iowa, noon, ESPN2: The Hawkeyes can pull into a tie with the Spartans for the Legends Division lead, but James Vandenberg must solve State's defense, which is second nationally in total yards allowed.
Florida at South Carolina, noon, CBS3: The 15th-ranked Gamecocks are trying to keep pace with Georgia in the SEC East, and their defense should be too strong for the Gators' anemic offense.
Alabama at Mississippi State, 7:45 p.m., ESPN: There are concerns about a letdown for the Crimson Tide, especially on the road, but Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy will pound the Bulldogs' mediocre defense.
Oregon at Stanford, 8 p.m., 6ABC: The fourth-ranked Cardinal, still alive for a berth in the BCS championship game, have been solid on both sides of the ball, but the No. 7 Ducks have speed on their side.
- Joe Juliano