Lions Have Pep in Their Step

Penn State players excited by reduction of NCAA sanctions but are still focused on this week’s Big Ten open at Rutgers.

Until Monday, this week's storyline figured to be the Penn State-Rutgers rivalry. Or “rivalry,” as the case may be.

Then the news broke about the NCAA lifting Penn State's bowl ban, and removing the scholarship restrictions it handed down two years ago, in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal.

“It puts some pep in your step and gets you ready to go for the season,” safety Ryan Keiser said during a conference call with reporters Tuesday morning. “The feeling definitely changes. You get a little more upbeat, excited.”

“I just think it allows people to realize we're not playing just for each other anymore, and for the university,” middle linebacker Mike Hull said. “Our wins mean something.”

New coach James Franklin said his players “have the ability to chase their dreams now,” while adding that everyone's approach to the season remains the same -- that the Lions are still taking one day at a time, one game at a time, etc.

That message appears to have gotten through.

“We realize it's just an opportunity and nothing's guaranteed,” Hull said. “We still have to make it (to a bowl), and it starts this week.”

And it starts with the Nittany Lions' meeting with the Scarlet Knights, both 2-0, Saturday night at 8 in High Point Solutions Stadium in Piscataway, N.J. It is, significantly, Rutgers' inaugural Big Ten game.

“First impressions in life matter, and this is our opportunity to make a first impression in the Big Ten Conference,” Rutgers coach Kyle Flood said during the Big Ten conference call Tuesday afternoon.

And not only that, Flood said, but they have a chance to do it at home, on the Big Ten Network, against “our neighbors to the west.”

Flood has steadfastly avoided referring to Penn State by name for a while now, in much the same way that Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler did when the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry was at its hottest.

Franklin was asked during his stint on the Big Ten call if he refers to RU as the Lions' “neighbor to the east.”

“I call it Rutgers,” he said.

Penn State has won 22 of 24 games against the Knights, in a series last contested in 1995. The Lions have also routinely poached New Jersey high school players over the years. Franklin noted that there are 15 natives of the Garden State on the current roster.

This is a rivalry? RU has promised to make it feel like one on Saturday.

“I think it's going to be a very hostile environment,” Hull said, adding that the Lions will have to “kind of weather the storm early on and play our game.”

The atmosphere Monday in State College was considerably more buoyant. Hull said he learned the bowl ban had been rescinded on social media, while having lunch at Chik Fil A with his teammates and roommates, safety Jesse Della Valle, guard Miles Dieffenbach and defensive end Brad Bars.

Soon after -- Hull said it was “literally 30 seconds later” -- he and his teammates received a text message saying there would be a squad meeting to discuss the matter. Because everyone had already heard the news, Franklin said, the meeting was “in some ways … anticlimactic.”

It was not without significance, however.

“It's obviously extremely exciting for us,” Keiser said. “Been two years without a bowl game, and we missed it. We're really thankful that we're able to be eligible again. Now we've got to take care of our business and go get the wins.”

“It was a pretty cool moment I’ll never forget. I was smiling ear to ear and a lot of the other guys … we just couldn’t believe everything turned around like that.”

“Obviously during the sanctions we really just played for each other, played for the university and the community,” Hull said. “We're always going to be doing that, but at the same time it gives us a little bit more incentive and excitement to know we can potentially reach other goals, besides that.”

Hull and Keiser were among the 49 players on the current team who were free to transfer when the sanctions were announced in July 2012. They chose to stay, and on Monday were called to the front of the meeting room in the Lasch Building and given a standing ovation by their teammates, according to Franklin.

“It was a pretty cool moment I'll never forget,” Hull said. “I was smiling ear to ear and a lot of the other guys … we just couldn't believe everything turned around like that. We were expecting the worst, whenever those (sanctions) were handed down. It was definitely a special moment for a lot of the older guys.”

Hull has not had a chance to speak with former PSU linebacker Mike Mauti, now with the Minnesota Vikings, but has seen some tweets from Mauti, celebrating Monday's developments.

“He's one of the main reasons why this team has had so much success over the last few years,” Hull said. “A lot is owed to him, and that 2012 class.”

Same, he said, for the coaches who followed the late Joe Paterno -- interim boss Tom Bradley, Bill O'Brien, Larry Johnson (another interim head) and now Franklin.

“It wasn't easy for any of those guys to take over in the position that we were in,” Hull said, “but they all did their part and did a great job.”

As Monday wound down, hundreds of Penn State students took to the streets of State College, as they had after Paterno was fired in November 2011. Then they were angry. Now they were rejoicing.

Hull said that was great, too -- “as long as nothing got destroyed.”

Asked what he might have learned from everything that has transpired the last two years, Hull said, “I tried not to look at the big picture, just take it day by day. Basically the things I've learned is some things in life you just can't control. You've just got to take everything day by day and make the best out of your situation.”

Keiser, for his part, talked about how much he used to enjoy bowl games -- how it was a chance for the players to bond and relish each other's company, whether at practice, in the hotel or whatever.

“A lot of times,” he said, “you don't realize how much you miss something until you don't have it. We're really thankful that we're eligible again.”

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