"Winning is fun," head coach Bill O'Brien said this week. "And so winning, like we said a lot of times, winning cures a lot of ills. And it's fun to win. That locker room, after some of these wins, it's been some of the most memorable post game locker rooms in my career."
That's good news for a program that didn't have much to enjoy from the months of November to August.
Once the news of Jerry Sandusky's arrest spread in early November of last year, the Penn State football program would never be the same. There was the purging of most university leadership, including iconic football coach Joe Paterno; Paterno's stunning diagnosis of lung cancer and eventual death Jan. 22; the pain of Sandusky's trial; and the stunning NCAA sanctions that came in July.
By the time the swift NCAA decision was announced – a four-year bowl ban, immediate transfer eligibility, the loss of numerous scholarships and more – one thing seemed for certain: what had been a brutal few months was looking like it would continue into a brutal stretch of years.
Add in the defections of about 10 scholarship players around the start of fall camp – including star tailback Silas Redd – and the fact the team lost its first two games to Ohio and Virginia, and things on the outside were looking grim.
Some observers wondered if the Nittany Lions would win a game, while most seemed to believe bowl eligibility was but a pipe dream after the two season-opening losses.
But suddenly, Penn State was able to stop the boulder from rolling down the hill. First came a win vs. Navy in which the Nittany Lions were outgained but forced four turnovers. Next up was a solid victory against Temple to even the record at 2-2.
Things really got rolling as the Nittany Lions went to Illinois to begin the Big Ten slate and romped over the crumbling Illini. A real test came with a return to Happy Valley, and Penn State passed it, with its defense stiffening in a comeback win against previously undefeated Northwestern.
Add in a romp last week at Iowa after the team's open week and Penn State sits at 5-2, including 3-0 and basically tied with Ohio State atop the Leaders Division.
And no program has quite an appreciation for what the Nittany Lions have been able to do this season turning around the slide than Ohio State. A year ago, the Buckeyes went through their fair share of troubles, losing legendary head coach Jim Tressel in May and then battling through continued NCAA issues on the way to a 6-7 season marked by a four-game, season-ending losing streak.
Through it all last year, the Buckeyes learned how tough it can be to play winning football through ever-present distractions. So going into the showdown in Happy Valley, the Ohio State players know they're going to meet a team with uncommon resolve.
"They started off rough, but they've been able to bounce back and fight through adversity they've unfortunately had to deal with this season," OSU senior Reid Fragel said. "We've had to go through some similar things, so I kind of know where they're at as far as that goes."
What are some of the keys to the Penn State turnaround? On the field, the defense has turned into one of the best in the Big Ten, while the offense has been buoyed by the improvement of senior quarterback Matt McGloin and the rapid development of skill position players like Bill Belton, Kyle Carter and Allen Robinson.
Off the field, though, the program has been solidified by O'Brien, the first-year coach hired from the New England Patriots. The coach gives off a calm yet competent demeanor, but at the same time, he's somewhat old school in the way he approaches things.
"I just know that we came in here and had a program and this is the way we wanted to do things," O'Brien said. "And we explained it to the players and tried to communicate and be very honest with them, this is what we want to try to do. We want to be great in the classroom and be as good as we can on the field. And that's what we've just tried to do."
It sounds so simple, yet the steadiness of O'Brien's hand both privately and publicly has been key, FightOnState.com publisher Mark Brennan said.
"He had to know he was walking into the proverbial hornets' nest when he took the job, and I'll bet it has been even more difficult than he expected," Brennan said. "But he has said and done the right thing at practically every turn — from the day he was introduced as Joe Paterno's replacement through the NCAA sanctions and on into the season."
The Nittany Lions players must also get some credit. The seniors who stayed – ranging from McGloin to fullback Michael Zordich to linebacker Michael Mauti to a number of others who receive major playing time – asserted themselves as leaders long before the season began, Brennan said.
O'Brien has also been effusive in his praise of the way his team has handled its roller coaster ride.
"I can't say enough about these players," he said. "These guys are the guys that stuck with us. They're tough kids. They're smart. You just have to always tell them the truth. And as long as you do that, whether it's something that maybe they don't always want to hear or it's a positive reinforcement, these guys really appreciate that. So that's just really what we try to do every day. "
The winner of the meeting between Ohio State and Penn State will control its own destiny for the Leaders Division title. No postseason will follow – the only bowl either can win is this weekend's IneligiBowl – but it's fair to say both programs have come a long way in a short time.
For the Ohio State players, it's impressive to see just how that has worked out in Happy Valley.
"They came together and they didn't let what happened in the summer and the first two losses take control of their season," OSU wideout Jacob Stoneburner said. "The coach just kept them together, and they're playing great."