Penn State linebacker Jason Cabinda made a triumphant return to the starting lineup Saturday night, finally shaking off a hand injury that sidelined him since the opening game of the season to make a dozen tackles and a sack in a 24-21 upset of No. 2 Ohio State.
But the junior Mike ’backer was even more impressive in the postgame press scrum, when he eloquently summed up just how important the victory was to a program that had been hammered by “unprecedented” NCAA sanctions stemming from the Sandusky scandal four years earlier.
“There really hasn’t been a team or program that’s been through as much adversity as this team has (with) the sanctions — I mean, people thought that we were out for the count,” Cabinda said.
The sanctions came down in July of 2012, and stripped the program of a significant number of scholarships, allowed players to transfer to other FBS programs without penalty and banned the Nittany Lions from postseason play for four years.
At the time, more than a few media types said the punishment was worse than the “death penalty” SMU received in 1986. It is fair to say the Mustangs have still not completely recovered from that hit.
But with the victory over the three-touchdown favorite Buckeyes, Penn State improved to 5-2 overall and 3-1 in the Big Ten. And with the non-monetary sanctions having all been invalidated, PSU is two victories away from emerging from the troubled time without suffering a losing record.
Sunday, the Lions moved back into the Associated Press Top 25 for the first time since December of 2011.
“Everybody counted us out,” Cabinda said. “Everybody thought we were done, to the point like the SMU sanctions back in the day. That’s how people were comparing us.
“It was like, death to Penn State,” he added.
Cabinda is a New Jersey native who longed to play at Penn State. But due to the sanctions, the Nittany Lions did not have a scholarship available to offer him. When the sanctions were initially eased in the fall of 2013, Cabinda — who was committed to Syracuse — received his offer. http://www.scout.com/college/penn-state/story/1719381-psu-fans-now-get-s...
He visited Penn State for the Nittany Lions’ thrilling four-OT win against Michigan that October. It was, you might recall, a Beaver Stadium “White Out” game.
Cabinda flipped to Penn State the following week, even though most of the sanctions still loomed over the program at the time.
But he had a feeling things would come around quickly for the program, and remained committed even after head coach Bill O’Brien bolted for the Houston Texans and James Franklin replaced him.
Cabinda is now a junior for the Nittany Lions, and Saturday’s victory was the program’s first vs. a ranked opponent in his career. That it happened in a White Out made it that much sweeter for him.
“This team just has heart,” he said. “Resilient. Selfless. Sacrificing. We got hit with some tough injuries at the beginning of the year. I missed some time. Tried to make up for some time today. I’m really just so proud of this team, because there’s really nobody that deserves it more.”
In summing up Penn State’s faster-than-anyone-might-have-imagined return to the Top 25, Cabinda worked in the program’s well-known mantra.
“That’s the reason ‘We Are…’ ” he explained.
“And always will be.”