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Still On Solid Ground

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January will no doubt provide a bumpy ride for the Penn State football program. A second coaching search in two years, and the promise of a fourth head coach for the seniors-to-be, make these unprecedented times in Happy Valley.

Nevertheless, things today are better -- much better -- than they could have been.

When the NCAA imposed unprecedented sanctions on the program in July 2012, in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal, the punishment stopped short of the “death penalty” some predicted would be placed on the team. But others felt that the sanctions hurt the Nittany Lions even worse than a temporary stoppage of football would, setting them back for years to come.

Now that the dust has settled a bit--at least on the field--the Lions have performed better than most expected them to in their first two years since losing four seasons of postseason eligibility and a number of scholarships, among a handful of other penalties received two summers ago. And with reduced scholarship sanctions announced during the 2013 season, Penn State very well might be back to looking like its old self on the gridiron quicker than most people outside of Happy Valley had imagined.

After a surprising 2012 season following the sanctions — one that ended with an 8-4 record after consecutive losses to begin the campaign — the Lions received good news early into the 2013 season. A release posted on the NCAA’s website on Sept. 24 announced that the NCAA Executive Committee would slowly restore the scholarships Penn State lost, following the school’s “continued progress toward ensuring athletics integrity.”

Initially, Penn State was set to be held at 15 scholarships per year, instead of the usual 25, from the 2013-14 academic year until 2016-17. Meanwhile, the Lions were also to be limited to 65 total scholarships at any time, instead of 85, from 2014-15 until 2017-18.

The reduced penalties will gradually add more scholarships back to the team each year until both maximum totals are reached. The Lions will be allotted 20 scholarships for 2014-15 and 75 total for that year to start the process, adding five more scholarships each year. In other words, they will be back at 25 scholarships per year in 2015-16 and at 85 total scholarships again in 2016-17, reaching full strength in each category two years earlier than originally planned.

Those were the only reductions outlined in September, although the release also stated that “the group may consider additional mitigation of the postseason ban in the future depending upon Penn State’s continued progress.”

Still, even if further modifications to the sanctions do not happen, a few more scholarships here and there can go a long way for Penn State, as the team continues to try to persevere through the next few seasons.

The team posted another winning season in 2013, but had its ugly moments. There was a 20-point loss to Indiana and a 63-14 blowout by Ohio State, though both were answered with overtime victories the following weeks. Later, an upset over Wisconsin to close the season also helped to keep the Lions above .500.

However, those off-games likely had a better chance to become more commonplace if the team stayed as shorthanded with scholarships as it was supposed to. Instead, it can bring in more talented players on scholarships than before, one certainty among several more question marks entering next season.

The loss of head coach Bill O'Brien is the greatest unknown, but wide receiver Allen Robinson seems just as likely to turn pro and take his services to Sundays in 2014. But while sudden roster and personnel moves can make it harder to see if the Lions’ worst days on the field are now behind them, it is clear that they are on a faster track to recovery now.

On offense, freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg showed signs of promise throughout 2013, as freshman tight end Adam Breneman began seeing paydirt late in the season. Running backs Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak, who were both effective on the ground, each have one year of eligibility remaining.

So while more speed bumps may or may not be ahead of Penn State, additional scholarships will likely boost the team’s overall talent quicker than thought. Nobody will know for sure if the 2014 Lions will continue to play through the sanctions at an exceptional level until they take the field. But it is probably safe to say that the team’s outlook is much better now than it was in July 2012.

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