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September 16, 2012Allen Robinson kept running.
He could have stopped, seeing Matt McGloin's second-and-7 pass heading toward teammate Trevor Williams a good 10 yards in front of him, but he didn't. He kept going.
The ball jumped off Williams' hands, fluttering through the air and straight into Robinson's path toward the end zone. Landing softly in his hands right on the S of Beaver Stadium's north end zone, Robinson helped build the Nittany Lions' lead over Navy to 27 points with his third touchdown of the day.
Penn State knows this feeling.
The feeling of joy and exuberance that comes with something inexplicably good happening for no good reason at all.
Derek Dimke has been on the other side of the feeling.
The former Illinois placekicker had knocked home all seven of his field goal attempts last season before setting up for a game-tying 42-yard kick in the same stadium with only five seconds left in regulation.
For no good reason, Dimke's kick pushed from a perfect hold in the center of the field, hitting the right upright squarely and falling to the turf as time expired, sealing the Nittany Lions' 10-7 win.
For Penn State's players, coaching staff, alumni and the 98,792 fans at Beaver Stadium Saturday afternoon, Robinson's ricochet touchdown reception was a reminder of how a silly game can make you feel good. It was a reminder of what it feels like when something good happens for no good reason at all, and it was desperately needed by everyone involved.
"This one game, with everything we went through in nine months, this one game means a lot, not just for the team, but for the whole Penn State community," senior cornerback Stephon Morris said afterward. "It was great singing the Alma Mater at the end of the game with the fans. This first win was just great. It just felt really good."
Against a badly outmatched Navy team, there wasn't much from the afternoon's performance to indicate whether or not the Nittany Lions can add to their first win of the season when Temple arrives in Happy Valley next weekend.
Injuries at key positions are still abound. So are big holes from the defectors. The kicking game is still inadequate. And, as the season progresses, the opponents are only going to get tougher.
But, on Saturday afternoon and into the evening, this group of Penn State student athletes - a group that has been through more adversity in the public eye in the past nine months than most of us could ever imagine - had reason to look ahead with optimism about themselves and the rest of the season.
"The one thing that winning does is it cures a lot of things," head coach Bill O'Brien said afterward. "Winning also breeds confidence. The guys have confidence from lifting all those weights in the summer, or from practicing the way we practice, there's a reward for that and we know how to win and we can win.
"Like I've said from day one, there's nothing that any of us can do about the NCAA. All we can do is play under the rules in which they say to play under. So that's what we're doing and these kids have really stuck together. This group of players in the locker room right now are just really high character kids that have come together. It's one win and hopefully we can build on it."
In the Beaver Stadium media room following the game, O'Brien's postgame locker room message was parroted by nearly all of his players.
Since January, that's been common.
There is a deep bond between the Nittany Lions and their new head coach. The shared experience of the past nine months would be enough, it seems, but there's also an incredible respect for O'Brien's opinion and the way he carries himself.
Said senior center Matt Stankiewitch, everyone's character and confidence was shaken after an 0-2 start to the season. Naturally, in needing to find themselves and battle through adversity, they looked to O'Brien.
"He's the heart of this team," Stankiewitch said. "We all follow him and he's going to lead us. We follow his lead and we go from there because we believe in him."
All week, O'Brien stayed positive.
The temptation for the Nittany Lions to wallow in self-pity, victims of Sam Ficken's rough afternoon place kicking or a fluke play against Ohio to open the season, was there. To a certain extent, the Lions did.
It felt like they lost something, one player said. The team wasn't the same, quiet and dispirited from suffering losses that are never acceptable to Penn State football players.
Over and over, O'Brien told his team to play relaxed, have fun, and just get after Navy all game. Put the past behind you. Play the next play.
Simply, keep going.
"He just has so much energy," senior quarterback Matt McGloin said. "He's constantly motivating us, constantly getting us going, and it rubs off on us. We respond so well to it, which is why we practice so well and is why we played so well. He just has a way of communicating with us and getting into our minds about playing the game.
"I don't know how he does it. I get frustrated all the time, but he's constantly being a very optimistic person. He's always positive. It's hard to do, but for some reason, we respond to it."
Whether or not good things will continue to happen to this Penn State team for no good reason at all remains to be seen.
O'Brien seems to think they will, and his players believe him wholeheartedly.
In that, after so many months of frustration and heartache, the Lions may have secured an even bigger win on Saturday than what the scoreboard reflected.
"We knew we had to come out here and get a win," senior defensive tackle Jordan Hill said. "He said the same thing. 'Hey, once you get one, they're going to start rolling in.'
"He's very supportive of us and wouldn't let up on us. Just because we lost, he wasn't going to give up on us. We practiced hard and it's starting to pay off."
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