After barely surviving the most tumultuous off-season in college football history, the Penn State football program and first-year head coach Bill O’Brien had their backs squarely against the wall heading into the 2012 football season.
A successful season, by most standards, was considered to be a .500 record and maybe wins in a few Big Ten games. Most non-Nittany Lions fans scoffed at the notion that even three wins was possible considering the sanctions, the transfers and new coaching staff.
And after a disappointing 0-2 start to the season — two games that Penn State could have realistically won — the naysayers seemed right, and the doubters got louder. But O’Brien leaned on his senior class that kept the team together through it all and the wins started piling up; left-for-dead two games into the season, the Nittany Lions won eight of their final 10 games.
Like O’Brien eloquently stated after Saturday’s emotional overtime win over Wisconsin, this team really was “a bunch of f@#$%rs.”
Former walk-on quarterback Matt McGloin — who you wouldn’t have picked to quarterback your flag football team based on previous seasons — broke both the school’s single season passing yardage record and the career passing touchdown record.
A lot of his successes this season have to be attributed to the system and coaching, but McGloin deserves just as much credit for this 8-4 season as anyone on the team. He finished the season with 3,271 yards passing, 24 touchdowns and only 5 interceptions (the same number of interceptions McGloin threw in the 2011 Outback Bowl alone). The biggest beneficiary of McGloin’s breakout season was sophomore wide receiver Allen Robinson — who finished with 77 catches for 1,077 yards and 11 touchdowns.
While Penn State’s passing offense grabbed all the headlines, their “next-man-up” running game was just as crucial in their eight victories. Heading into the season, it was expected to be Bill Belton’s job to shoulder the rushing game. After Belton was injured, Derek Day got a shot, then senior captain Michael Zordich and lastly junior Zach Zwinak, who ultimately became the starter and led Penn State’s rushing attack with 1,000 yards on the season. Altogether, Penn State ran for over 1,700 yards this season — most of which would have been Silas Redd’s yards had he not transferred to USC to chase a national title. (How did that work out, Silas?)
Then there was former Steelton star defensive tackle Jordan Hill, who finished with his career at Penn State on a high note — with a career-high 12 tackles on Saturday, including eight tackles and three for a loss in the fourth quarter and overtime alone. It is projected that Hill will be the first Nittany Lion selected in April’s NFL Draft.
And lastly, the team’s unquestioned leader, linebacker Michael Mauti, who forced to watch his final game as a Nittany Lion from the sidelines after injuring his knee early against Indiana but was far from forgotten. If you know nothing else about Mauti meant to this team, look no further than Saturday’s tributes to the injury-plagued star.
During the pre-game introductions of Penn State’s seniors, Mauti received the loudest roar from the crowd, and during the game, senior linebacker Gerald Hodges wore Mauti’s #42 jersey and the rest of the team wore the #42 on the side of their helmets to pay tribute to their captain.
Sure, sanctions won’t allow this team to play in a bowl game this season (or the next three), but if you aren’t playing for a national title, does it matter? This year, Penn State would have likely ended up an underdog in the Outback Bowl against a tough SEC team. After the emotional senior day win over Wisconsin to end the season, the bowl game would have been a let down to players and fans alike.
Penn State’s 2012 football team will surely go down in history, not because of their record, but because of everything else they overcame. This team not only began to heal a fractured fan base, but they sent a message to future recruiting classes that sanctions or not, Penn State football is still going strong.
Let’s just hope the architect of the turnaround, head coach Bill O’Brien, doesn’t jump at an opportunity to take one of the high-paying NFL head coaching jobs that will surely be offered to him this off-season.
Jeff Cavanaugh writes sanctimonious stories about the genius of rock stars for SaraBozich.com. Follow him on Twitter.