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October 9, 2012

Column: Peaks and valleys

BELLEFONTE, Pa. - Convicted of 45 of 48 counts of child sexual abuse in June, former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky had the horrified attention of the entire nation.

The Freeh Report, released in mid-July, prompted the same response, this time fingered at Penn State's leaders and their abject failure to prevent Sandusky's crimes when given the opportunities.

By the end of the month, severe NCAA sanctions against Penn State football set the tone for an August riddled with speculation about the potentially dismal future of the program. Consensus suggested crippled head coach Bill O'Brien would have to salvage wins with a ragtag group of players who remained after mass defections.

The defections occurred, Penn State's recruiting took some serious steps backward, and the Nittany Lions opened with back-to-back losses against MAC opponent Ohio and lowly Virginia. The damage had been done, some said, O'Brien and the Nittany Lions entrenched in the beginning of what would be at least four years of bad football, potentially many more.

Tuesday morning, eyes were focused squarely on Sandusky again, but the conversation has taken a striking turn in direction. Waiting in line to enter the Centre County Courthouse among more than 200 media members, national sports pundits talked amongst themselves not about Sandusky, but rather, about the impressive feat O'Brien has achieved through his first six games on the job.

In reeling off four consecutive wins, the massive shadow over the program has, at least temporarily, been lifted.

Following the Nittany Lions' thrilling 39-28 come-from-behind win against No. 24-ranked Northwestern on Saturday, O'Brien related the small part his football program is playing in the rehabilitation of a community so badly scarred by scandal.

"Football is just a sport, where we have a bunch of great kids here that love to go to school here and take pride in playing football for Penn State," he said. "They have a little part in the community and helping the community. We do the same thing as a coaching staff; we try to get out in the community. We enjoy living here; there are some great people here.

"Those things that happened over the summer and in the past are a lot bigger than football. These kids are just having fun playing football right now and going to school."

In the context of the past year, any positives can and should be met with enthusiasm by supporters of the program and university as a whole, but the ongoing conversation is certain to contain many more peaks and valleys.

For as positive a result as June's guilty verdict, July's Freeh Report and NCAA sanctions were both significant blows to the football program and university community.

For as positive an example O'Brien and players like Michael Mauti and Mike Zordich were in the immediate aftermath, losses to open the season spelled certain doom for the entire program.

And, for as positive Penn State's four game winning streak has been, Tuesday's sentencing once again turned the country's attention to the horrific crimes Sandusky committed on the bucolic University Park campus.

Certainly, there is something to be learned here.

The conversation and opinions it shapes are extremely fickle. While Sandusky's sentencing ends one chapter of this story, January's Tim Curley and Gary Schultz trial opens the door to more damaging news. Wins and losses, small and large, both on and off the football field, are certain to accompany the coming months and years.

If O'Brien one of the more positive examples from this entire ordeal, his words about preparing the Nittany Lions for each game - regardless of a win or loss - can be taken to heart by Penn State fans feeling the cautious optimism that has befallen the program the past four weeks.

"I do think there's a certain amount you can learn from every game," he said. "I do really try to preach to these kids about playing twelve one-game seasons and we have six one-game seasons left.

"I'm not too much into omens. I'm just into not a lot of gray area. Who do we play next and how do we game plan for that one? Get the team focused on that."

On an arduous journey that has yet to run its course, Penn State fans can and should do the same.

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