Column: One star who never made it to the stadium

STATE COLLEGE, PA. (AP) - Games are supposed to be about the guys who show up.

Not this one.

Penn State didn’t lose 17-14 Saturday to Nebraska just because Joe Paterno wasn’t there. Or because the Nittany Lions were emotionally exhausted or lacking effort after one of the most trying weeks any football team has had to withstand.

They lost this particular game because they were offensively inept, something that was a problem even when Joe was around. Penn State won eight of its previous 10 games mostly because of a stout defense and good luck than almost anything he did. It won because of a few rugged goal-line stands late and the occasional game-tying field goal clanking off the upright.

Paterno set the tone for the team, but he’s been more a CEO than head coach for several seasons. Now he’s out of a job, pushed aside after 46 seasons in the wake of a scandal that erupted a week ago, when former longtime assistant and one-time heir apparent Jerry Sandusky was charged with serial child sex-abuse.

The team decided to mark his absence by leaving the first seat on the bus empty for the ride to Beaver Stadium. Asked where its usual occupant would be spending the day, Jay Paterno, Joe’s son and Penn State’s quarterbacks coach, replied, “Who knows?

“Maybe he’s out cutting the grass,” Jay added, then thought about it some more. “I doubt it. He can’t now. There are 800 media cameras.”

From a practical standpoint, the Nittany Lions probably missed receivers coach Mike McQueary even more. Most weeks, McQueary is down on the field, signaling the plays he gets over his headset from offensive coordinator Galen Hall and Jay Paterno up in the press box, then making sure the personnel group in the huddle matches the call.

This Saturday, McQueary was at an undisclosed location because he had received threats, yet one more unforeseen consequence of the events of the past week. McQueary was a 28-year-old grad assistant in March, 2002, when he walked into the team’s locker room one night to grab some game film, heard noises coming from the shower and headed in that direction. He would later tell a grand jury that he saw Sandusky assaulting a boy of about 10.

Like Joe Paterno, McQueary has been vilified for not doing more to stop an alleged sexual predator though, so far, he’s been placed on administrative leave and not fired. Unsettling as it must have been for his fellow coaches and players to find out Friday night _ via a conference call _ that McQueary wasn’t going to be with them, they missed him even more on the very first play.

Interim head coach Tom Bradley scrambled to come up with something simple to open the game _ a fullback dive, Joe’s bread-and-butter play _ and who knows how many fans assumed it was some kind of tribute. It wasn’t.

“We had a little bit on confusion early,” conceded Bradley, who didn’t begin preparing for his new job until he received a call from new school president Rod Erickson late Wednesday night.

Jay Paterno assumed McQueary’s duties on the sideline, in addition to his regular role calling the pass plays. After that rocky start, he settled down by remembering something his father said.

Joe was always telling us about `the blue line of practice.’ When you cross the blue line, the only thing you can control is what you’re doing right there,” Jay recalled.” So we just had to imagine there was a blue line coming into this stadium and once we were here, we were focused on the task at hand. Just a little short.”

Afterward, he talked about dropping a letter off at his parents’ house earlier in the day, including a line that read, “Dad, I wish you were here.”

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