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November 12, 2012

Column: Both teams deserved better

LINCOLN, Neb. - Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien knew what the question would be well before veteran beat reporter Rich Scarcella asked it.

"What did your coaches upstairs tell you about Lehman's fumble?" Scarcella asked.

O'Brien, screwing the cap back onto a plastic water bottle, needed to compose himself. He actually winced as he deposited the bottle on the lower shelf of the wooden podium sitting in front of him.

Camera shutters clicking, O'Brien wiped his mouth, adjusted the microphone, paused, and sought to delay the anguish of reliving the moment, letting out an extended "ummm" while shaking his head before finally addressing the question.

"Felt like it was over the goal line," he said. "They just didn't feel like they could reverse it."

Saying the words hurt, a physical objection to the irony of being a college football coach today.

In one sense, the whole appeal of O'Brien to his players, staff, and Penn State fans is his honesty.

A guy who had nothing to do with the university before his arrival in January has been forthright and, at times, brutally honest in his assessments needed to move the program forward following a still hard-to-fathom scandal. He's made tough decisions regarding his football team, and his subjects have responded with a love and admiration that goes beyond a typical player-coach relationship.

And yet Saturday night, O'Brien had to betray his own instincts in an effort to sustain the always-positive aura that has sprung up around the program with remarkable quickness.

What would lashing out publicly at Big Ten officials do?

Sure, it might feel good in the moment, but a media and hierarchy of NCAA brass that demands utter submission would have resulted in A) a fine and B) a new negative portrayal of Penn State for ESPN to set on replay for its Saturday night and Sunday morning programming.

Forget it.

O'Brien hasn't and won't get sucked into a trap like that.

For fifth-year quarterback Matt McGloin, however, there isn't much left to consider a trap.

He frequently speaks his mind, mostly because at this point, there's nothing left to lose, and, right or wrong, he's earned the right to be truthful about his opinions.

So when reporters asked McGloin to talk about the call - practically begging for the plain-spoken honesty he is guaranteed to bring - no one was surprised that he hedged toward an understanding that 'that call' wouldn't be made at Memorial Stadium, especially when Penn State was the team at stake.

"I know we're not going to get that call here. We're not going to get that call ever, against any team. It doesn't matter who the refs are, we'll never get that call. That's the way it is," he said, a reporter quickly asking why he felt that way. "Why do you think it is? That's the way it is, man. Write what you think."

Though McGloin's teammates didn't go that far, each acknowledging the shortcomings and mistakes made in their 32-23 loss to the Cornhuskers, privately, the frustration of poor call after poor call by the league's officiating was and continues to be palpable.

Is it a conspiracy by the Big Ten to further punish the program?

Flatly, no.

The glaring reality of that answer might actually be worse, though.

To pull off a vast conspiracy, competence is needed, and if the league's officiating has proven anything in recent seasons - not just in dealing with Penn State, but the other 11 member teams as well - that is simply not present in an old boy network that repeatedly fails the players and coaches that work tirelessly for their one opportunity to play a fair, well-officiated game each weekend.

Mike Mauti returned from two anterior cruciate ligament tears for an opportunity to play in an untainted game on Saturday afternoon. Gerald Hodges passed up millions of dollars for that opportunity, too. The same can be said of every person on that Penn State sideline that stayed when the easy way out seemed far more favorable.

So when O'Brien was asked whether losing to Nebraska in this fashion - an incomprehensible call likely affecting the outcome of the game - was worse than any other loss, his answer revealed a truth that, though some may not understand, is real nonetheless.

"Losing is a terrible feeling. It's miserable. It's absolutely miserable," he said. "It's like a part of you dies, to be honest with you. So, no it doesn't feel any different. It feels not very good."

The truth is, whether Penn State would have gone on to beat Nebraska with the correct call being made is unknown. A Cornhuskers' offense that was efficient all afternoon very well could have come back from the hypothetical 30-27 deficit and pulled off the win in front of their boisterous home crowd.

Regardless of team affiliation, it would have been a thrilling conclusion to a thrilling game.

Both teams' players, coaches and fans deserved better.




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