Penn State falls to Nebraska on an emotional day

Penn State players Derek Moye (6), Quinn Barham (67), Devon Still (71), and Drew Astorino (28) link arms as they lead the team onto the field before an NCAA college football game against Nebraska in State College, Pa., Saturday, Nov. 12, 2011.
AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

Updated 5:10 PM EST

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - Capping the worst week in school history, No. 12 Penn State couldn't overcome a 17-point deficit and was stopped short on a 4th-and-1 late in a 17-14 loss Saturday to No. 19 Nebraska.

The outcome was secondary in Happy Valley.

A tumultuous chapter that began with the arrest of former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky on shocking child sexual abuse charges ended Saturday with Penn State (8-2, 5-1 Big Ten) losing in its first game the post-Joe Paterno era. The winningest major college football coach in history was fired Wednesday.

Rex Burkhead ran for 121 yards and a touchdown for Nebraska (8-2, 4-2) before the Nittany Lions scored 14 points on two second-half touchdown runs by Stephfon Green.

But a key drive ended when Silas Redd was stopped on the fourth down with 1:49 left at the Penn State 38.

School president Rod Erickson met the Nittany Lions in the locker room afterward and praised, "how much courage, how much heart, and how much character" the players had, he said.

Most Penn State fans heeded calls for a "blueout," wearing the school's familiar dark blue in support of victims of child sexual abuse. Fans formed the outline of a blue ribbon in the student section.

"We are ... Penn State," roared the crowd through the afternoon, the signature State College cheer.

The Nebraska and Penn State players gathered at midfield before the game, kneeling together for a long moment in a quiet stadium.

Sometimes, the most powerful statements are the simplest.

Saturday's game was a combination of pep rally, cleansing and tribute for a Penn State community rocked by the child sex-abuse scandal involving former assistant Jerry Sandusky that cost Joe Paterno his job.

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Affection for Penn State and Paterno was proudly on display, both by fans and players. So was support for abuse victims.

"This has been one of the saddest weeks in the history of Penn State and my heart goes out to those who have been victimized. I share your anger and sorrow," new school president Rod Erickson said in a video played in the first quarter. "Although we can't go back to business as usual, our university must move forward. We are a community."

Instead of sprinting onto the field, the Penn State team marched out arm-in-arm through a corridor formed by the band and the Football Lettermen Club. Beaver Stadium was awash in blue — the color associated with child-abuse prevention — right down to the flags that accompanied the band. Outside the stadium, several students sold blue bracelets to raise money for RAINN, or the Rape Abuse Incest National Network.

And the normally raucous atmosphere right before the game was replaced by a moment of silence for the victims. The somber mood was finally broken by a fan who shouted afterward, "We love you, P-State!"

Penn State junior Dane Werley, left, and sophomore David Manley watch today's game between Nebraska and Penn State Saturday, Nov. 12, 2011, in State College, Pa.
AP Photo/Matt Rourke

"It's therapy," said Dave Young, a lifelong Penn State fan. "I love Penn State football, always will love Penn State football. Tough week, cried in my office a couple times when I had moments to myself.

"But now it's time to release and watch the football game and enjoy it."

Indeed, once the game got underway, it was like any other Saturday at Beaver Stadium — except for the guy in charge of the home team, of course.

It was the first time in 46 years that Paterno was not leading the Nittany Lions, but his presence was still very much evident. When his image was shown in a video montage before the second half kicked off, the student section chanted, "Joe Paterno! Joe Paterno!"

The Nittany Lions' first play was a fullback run up the middle — old school, just like JoePa. The game was vintage, too, relying on the gritty defense and basic running attack that are as much Penn State trademarks as its plain blue-and-white uniforms. As it has much of the season, the Nittany Lions' offense struggled and Nebraska had a 17-0 lead in the third quarter.

On the Penn State sideline, another Paterno paced back and forth.

Jay Paterno, the quarterbacks coach, traded his usual seat in the press box for a spot on the field. Paterno also took his father's spot on the team bus, following the starting quarterback off when Penn State arrived at the stadium.

Penn State fans gather outside Beaver Stadium near a statue of Joe Paterno before the start of the NCAA football game between Penn State and Nebraska in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal on November 12, 2011 in State College, Pennsylvania.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

The normally low-key Jay Paterno, a quarterbacks coach, pumped his fist and shouted, "Let's go!" He high-fived passers-by on the way into the stadium, and several staffers gave him an encouraging embrace before he entered the locker room. Several players appeared to have tears in their eyes, and three wore shirts that read "Joe Knows Football."

But this Saturday was about more than football.

It was about picking up the pieces.

Sandusky, once considered Paterno's heir apparent, is accused of sexually abusing eight boys over a 15-year span, with several of the alleged assaults occurring on Penn State property. Two university officials are accused of perjury, and Paterno and president Graham Spanier were fired for not doing enough to act on a 2002 report that Sandusky sodomized a young boy in the showers of the campus football complex.

"We are obviously in a very unprecedented situation," interim coach Tom Bradley said Thursday. "I just have to find a way to restore the confidence and to start a healing process with everybody."

The scandal would be damaging enough to a university that prides itself on its integrity. That it involved Paterno, major college football's winningest coach and the man who'd come to symbolize all that was good at Penn State, made it that much worse.

Thousands of angry students paraded through the streets after Paterno was fired Wednesday night, some throwing rocks and bottles and tipping over a TV news van. While the anger has waned, the fondness for Paterno has not.

Penn State sophomores Katharina Streubel, left, and Chelsey Coudriet watch the half-time show during an NCAA college football game between Nebraska and Penn State Saturday, Nov. 12, 2011, in State College, Pa.
AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Several students were dressed as Paterno — rolled-up khakis, white socks and thick, dark glasses — and an entire family wore shirts that read "We (Heart) JoePa." Paul Diehm, a Penn State graduate who made the three-hour trip from Delaware, bought a blue T-shirt with the simple message, "Thanks Joe."

"Sixty-one years of service," he said, referring to Paterno's years at Penn State as both an assistant and head coach. "You've got to say thank you. He deserves it."

At Joe Paterno's house nearby, a small clutch of TV cameras and reporters stood outside. A pair of people walked to the door, rang the doorbell and left after no one answered. On the lawn were a pair of homemade signs — one read "We Love You Joe, Thank You" the other "Thanks Joe" — facing his house. Nearby a small American flag had been planted in the yard of the house.

Though police promised a heavy presence to prevent a recurrence of the violence that occurred Wednesday night, it wasn't needed. The parking lots were filled with fans grilling out, tossing footballs and soaking up the beauty of the warm, late fall morning.

"It's heartbreaking and sad and almost surreal. You can't get it out of your head for more than a minute. I'm sure just about everyone here feels the same way," Emmie Fay said as she glanced at the fellow tailgaters.

"But we're here because we love the school and believe in it."