LINCOLN — Bill O'Brien had to collect even himself last year after shaking hands with 31 players and going through Senior Day ceremonies for the first time as Penn State coach.
Under the circumstances, O'Brien said it was unlike anything he had been through before.
“It is an emotional day, and you have to be really aware of that,” he said. “I remember shaking their hands when they came out of the tunnel and the looks in their eyes ... and there are a lot of kids with emotions because they know that this is the last time they're going to play on that field.”
Penn State composed itself and responded with a 24-21 overtime win over Wisconsin, which would blast Nebraska 70-31 the next week in the Big Ten championship game. That capped an 8-4 season in O'Brien's first year with the Nittany Lions.
Another Senior Day comes this week as Penn State hosts Nebraska at Beaver Stadium. The Lions will honor 17 players before kickoff at 2:30 p.m.
But the significance of these classes — and reason for the strong reactions to their final home games — is that the 2012 and '13 seniors are the ones that helped lead PSU football through the Jerry Sandusky scandal and the scholarship reductions and postseason bans that spun out of it.
This bunch will be playing for another winning record as it takes on NU. The Nittany Lions are 6-4 overall and 3-3 in the Big Ten with the Huskers visiting Happy Valley. They finish the season at No. 16 Wisconsin.
“We can't let our emotions get the best of us,” PSU senior linebacker Glenn Carson said Wednesday.
Carson is a third-year starter who still hasn't wrapped his head around what unfolded back in 2011, including the dismissal of Joe Paterno as coach right before Nebraska visited for a Nov. 12 game.
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“For so long I've just been trying to block it out,” Carson said. “That was kind of just an only means of survival. I'm sure one day I'll look back and really realize how crazy of a time that was for me. But for now and until I'm done, it's just something that we went through and just pushed through, and we just always stayed on task.”
That's why Carson said resiliency is perhaps the greatest legacy of this senior class, which isn't exactly loaded with All-Big Ten candidates or NFL prospects.
The Nittany Lions' best player is a junior receiver (Allen Robinson). They'll be starting a true freshman at quarterback (Christian Hackenberg) against NU. And the No. 1 units for Saturday could include as many as 14 underclassmen.
But O'Brien said the seniors showed the underclassmen how to practice and persevere and stay together, and how to come back with the same intensity every week no matter the result the previous Saturday.
“They stuck with this university, they stuck with this program, and they didn't have to after the sanctions came out,” O'Brien said. “I think that says it all about this class.
“You think about it and 10 years from now, when you look back on the last two senior classes, they'll be an important part of Penn State football history.”
Said sophomore cornerback Jordan Lucas: “Just being committed and being all-in, I'd have to say that's what I've picked up from last year's senior class and this year's senior class.”
After all the feel-good stuff Saturday, O'Brien said the Lions will zero in on the Huskers. They'll go through the introductions, then head back into the locker room “and get refocused on the game and what we have to do to win.”
O'Brien said a proper send-off, however, should be in order.
“I'm not in charge of ticket sales or anything like that,” O'Brien said, “but I would imagine that the Penn State fans will turn out in force to show their respect for this senior class that stuck with this university and stuck with this football program.”
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