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October 13, 2013

Column: The throwback

The Penn State Blue Band finished its alma mater, an electric crowd of students in Beaver Stadium's south end zone roared, and Nittany Lions' head coach Bill O'Brien walked away from the hugs and high-fives of his team for a moment.

His eyes red with emotion, O'Brien raised both of his arms, fists clenched, and with one right hand overhead punch to the air, sent a knockout blow to his frustrations that have been building for months.

Winners of a thrilling 43-40 quadruple overtime heavyweight battle against previously-unbeaten, No. 18-ranked Michigan, O'Brien and his Nittany Lions collectively wore the exhaustion and exuberance of a program that has borne more than its fair share of emotional and physical scars this season.

"It just says a lot about our kids, a very resilient bunch of kids that care about each other and really love playing for Penn State," O'Brien said. "They love this place, they know it means a lot to them and their lives and they just keep fighting hard for this place."

O'Brien wasn't speaking solely about his players.

For a place still very much entrenched in a political civil war that has divided a once-tight community since Jerry Sandusky's unspeakable acts came to light nearly two years ago, Saturday night at Beaver Stadium was, momentarily, a reminder of what once was.

Describing O'Brien's nearly two-year tenure at Penn State as "complicated" or "love-hate" would be grossly reductive, but the challenges of the past few months have been particularly frustrating for the second-year head coach, even with the sanction storm clouds of the future seemingly rolling away. Coming off a 2012 season of survival, expectations for success have risen while the number of healthy scholarship-athletes have decreased.

On the field, a nightmarish series of injuries opened the season against Syracuse. A disappointing loss to Indiana escalated an already-frosty relationship with the media while dropping the Nittany Lions to 3-2 on the season. The simple challenge of winning from week-to-week becoming daunting enough, with an environment of unnatural political dealings related to the NCAA, the Big Ten, Penn State's board of trustees, and continued in-fighting, one can understand how an admittedly-moody O'Brien could begin to feel claustrophobic at the Lasch Building.

Many of O'Brien's players were feeling the weight, too.

Though O'Brien has repeatedly praised his kids' resiliency, they have heard the doubters, maybe none more so than junior running back Bill Belton.

Setting a career-high with 27 carries, Belton's own punch to the sky moments after waltzing into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown shouldn't have come as much of a surprise.

"It was great. It felt like it was a great burden let off my back," Belton said. "Everything I went through last year motivates me to be better every day. I see old articles and stuff and what people say. I just have those in my room and it pushes me to be at my best at all times."

At once a point of frustration and motivation, Penn State's locker room is brimming with the same type of attitude, extending all the way to the head coach.

Still, the oft-asked question when discussing O'Brien's potential future - whether or not he loves Penn State - was answered definitively Saturday night at Beaver Stadium.

O'Brien loves coaching these players, and they are undeniable in their love for him. Further, the significance of the moment - the time and place of a game that won't soon be forgotten by any of the 107,844 in attendance - was as tangible as it has ever been at Beaver Stadium.

"Winning cures a lot of things. Like salt water, it cures a lot of ills," O'Brien said. "This will go a long way for us, hopefully. Our kids feel good about it and they are, they are a resilient bunch of guys."

Though a series of obstacles still litter Penn State's path to future success, in that moment, with his ever-present support system reaching out over the field railings to connect with its chosen leader, O'Brien reached back.



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