Battered by a sex-abuse scandal that cost their beloved football coach his job, the Penn State faithful united in support of their school and the alleged victims Saturday but were broken-hearted again when their team came up short on the scoreboard.
For a while, it seemed as though the game might end poetically, as the proud Nittany Lions battled back from a 17-0 deficit to get within three points of the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
As Penn State drove down the field in the final seconds, a young woman in the student section summed up the thoughts of thousands: "Come on, State, you deserve this," she yelled, drawing applause from her peers.
Turning to a friend, she said quietly, "We really do."
But the team failed to rally and lost 17-14 in its first game in four decades without Joe Paterno as head coach.
A win would have at least offered hope that normalcy could return, that something uplifting could happen as the university tried to get beyond the darkest week in its history.
"It would have been a morale booster," said Keenan Brown, a sophomore from Altoona, who knotted a university tie, slipped on a sweater and rolled up his khakis to imitate and honor Paterno.
As they filed out of Beaver Stadium after the last home game of the season, Penn State fans were quiet and deflated.
Looking to avoid a repeat of the violence that erupted in State College after Paterno was fired Wednesday night, law enforcement made its presence known. At the stadium's Gate B, departing fans filed past a column of mounted police officers in formation.
While there had been concerns about security, and an anonymous bomb threat was made Friday night at Beaver Stadium, the crowd remained orderly and the day would be remembered for its symbolism and tributes.
Players from both teams met at mid-field before kickoff to acknowledge the alleged victims with a prayer. And the student section formed a blue ribbon, symbolizing a nationwide campaign to prevent child abuse.
It was a strong statement made by a student body that has endured a week of negative headlines amid accusations that former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky sexually assaulted young boys. President Graham Spanier, Paterno, one of his assistants and two administrators have been criticized for failing to report an alleged assault on campus in 2002. In the fallout, Spanier resigned last week and the board of trustees fired Paterno, casting a pall over the year's final home game.
"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," interim university President Rodney Erickson said in an address played on the stadium video screen. "I share your anger and sorrow. Although we cannot go back to business as usual, our university must move forward. … We will rebuild the trust, honor and pride that have endured for generations."
Penn State's first play from scrimmage was an old-school fullback run up the middle, apparently a homage to its legendary coach. And Paterno's son, quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno, wore the jacket his father wore 10 years ago when he broke the record set by Alabama's Bear Bryant for most wins in NCAA Division 1-A.
Joe Paterno, whose whereabouts Saturday were unknown, returned to his house after the game but did not address the throng of supporters gathered there. Earlier in the day, his wife, Sue, left the home with friends. She returned later and told those outside she was grateful for their support during what had been a difficult week. She said her family had no plans to go anywhere.
On Friday, the Paternos' son Scott confirmed that his father has retained Washington, D.C., attorney J. Sedgwick "Wick" Sollers, who represented former President George H.W. Bush in the Iran-Contra investigation in the 1990s.
The sentiment Saturday was overwhelmingly against the board of trustees' decision, which came hours after Paterno announced he would retire at the end of the season.
Paterno was a "scapegoat," said Tom Moldovan, a Penn State fan from Long Island: "Look at all he did for the state and the college. For what he gave, let him finish the year and retire with dignity."
In matching "I ♥ Joe Paterno" shirts, Christian Herr of Lancaster and Tom Rutkowski of Reading stood in a long line of fans waiting to take their pictures with the Paterno statue outside the stadium.
"They caved to pressure," said Herr, a 2001 graduate whose parents are alumni and season ticket holders.
So upset is the family with the decision to can Paterno, Herr said, that his parents have sworn off donating to the university and his mother has said she won't set foot on campus.
During the game, some students were upset that pro-Paterno signs were taken away by stadium staff. An usher said that while banners are permitted in the stadium, signs are not.
Students also were bothered by the absence of Paterno on promotional videos shown in the stadium.
"They're trying to erase JoePa," said freshman Ryan Stone of Berks County. "I don't think it's right."
Not everyone was unhappy with Paterno's departure.
"Everyone Must Go" read a sign held by one of hundreds of people awaiting the team's arrival outside the home locker room.
Paterno arrived at Penn State in 1950 as an assistant to former coach Rip Engle and succeeded him in 1966. During those 61 years he missed just three games — in 1966 at Army when his father died; in 1977 at Syracuse when son David was injured in a school trampoline accident; and in 2006 at home against Temple after he was injured the previous week in a sideline collision.
The coach lost his job after Sandusky was charged Nov. 4 with 40 counts of sexual abuse of children. A grand jury identified eight alleged victims who testified they met Sandusky through The Second Mile, a charitable organization for at-risk youth founded by the former coach. State Attorney General Linda Kelly said the investigation, which started two years ago, is ongoing.
Sandusky, 67, who retired from Penn State in 1999 but continued to have access to campus buildings until recently, is free on $100,000 bail.
Two other university officials, athletic director Tim Curley, 57, and Senior Vice President for Finance and Business Gary Schultz, 62, were charged with one count of felony perjury and one count of failure to report abuse allegations. Schultz has retired and Curley is on administrative leave. Both are free on $75,000 bail. Through their lawyers, Sandusky, Curley and Schultz say they are not guilty.
A former graduate assistant told the grand jury he saw a naked Sandusky in 2002 having anal sex with a boy about 10 years old in the Penn State locker room showers, and that he reported what he saw to Paterno the next day. In his testimony, Paterno said he reported the incident to Curley. A week later, Curley and Schultz met with the graduate assistant, according to the grand jury report.
No one called police.
The former graduate assistant has been identified as assistant coach Mike McQueary, who on Friday was put on administrative leave, with pay. McQueary, Paterno and Spanier have not been charged in the case.
As reporters descended on the campus last week, students rallied for a university rich in pride and tradition. And in a candlelight vigil Friday night, they paid tribute to abuse victims.
In some ways, the atmosphere Saturday was like any other game day in Happy Valley, as fans tailgated and enthusiastically greeted the team buses as they arrived. In other ways, it was markedly different as some students handed out pamphlets against sex abuse and others defended their university against demonstrators from the controversial Westboro Baptist Church, whose anti-gay campaign has brought them to a number of military funerals.
As church members shouted, "You are Penn rape," Penn State students stood across the street in a wall of silent solidarity.
"We don't want Penn State fans to engage them," said Julian Haas, a senior sociology student from Lancaster County.
Inside the stadium, the atmosphere was somber as prayers were said and tributes made. Not until Penn State scored in the second half did fans allow themselves a moment of jubilation.
John Mink of Allentown attributed the mood to the cumulative stress of the week and observed that the game almost seemed "anticlimactic." Mink, who has a child at Penn State, a second expected to start in January and one who already graduated, said he believes it could take "maybe a generation" to fully restore the school's credibility.
Reporter Mark Wogenrich, editor Bill Kline and The Associated Press contributed to this story.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times