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updated: 11/19/2013 8:22 PM

Penn State preps for the emotion of Senior Day

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  • Penn State head football coach Bill O'Brien, left, celebrates with students after last Saturday's home win against Purdue.

      Penn State head football coach Bill O'Brien, left, celebrates with students after last Saturday's home win against Purdue.
    Associated Press

 
Associated Press

Bill O'Brien will always remember his first Senior Day as head coach, that final time players race out of the tunnel in front of the home crowd, most of them knowing they'll never hear 90,000-plus fans cheering for them again.

O'Brien was moved last season by the emotion that hit the Penn State seniors as their names were called for one final game. And he's looking forward to witnessing that all over again.

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"I remember the looks in their eyes," O'Brien said Tuesday. "They know this is the last time they're going to play on this field."

The seniors gave O'Brien and Happy Valley a win to remember in a tumultuous year: A rousing 24-21 win over Wisconsin that set the stage for the Nittany Lions' recruiting season.

Penn State finished 8-4 last year and would have been a lock for a New Year's Day bowl had it not been for the NCAA sanctions hanging over the program because of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. The Nittany Lions (6-4, 3-3 Big Ten) are still ineligible for bowl play but need one win in the final two games to clinch a winning record. No small feat for a program rocked by scandal and stripped of scholarships.

In his second season, O'Brien knows how to steel himself for what's ahead in the senior festivities before Saturday's home finale against Nebraska (7-3, 4-2). He'll shake hands, hug and high-five this year's crop of seniors, then regroup in the locker room and recharge for the Cornhuskers.

"If you keep reminding them and keep them focused on what the keys to victory are," O'Brien said, "then I think that's what they focus on." The Nittany Lions will honor 17 seniors on Saturday, including nine regular starters. The list also includes tackle Kyle Baublitz, tackle Gary Gilliam, tackle Kevin Blanchard, guard Bryan Davie and wide receiver Alex Kenney, who are each giving up one more season of eligibility.

Tight end Matt Lehman will be honored, though he could still return next year if the NCAA grants an injury waiver.

"I think it's a special thing when you get introduced in front of the home crowd," O'Brien said. "I want these guys, if this is their last home game, to have that opportunity."

And he wants a proper send-off.

Penn State has struggled with attendance at Beaver Stadium this season, with only a win against undefeated Michigan filling every seat. While the Nittany Lions still announce more than 90,000 fans for each home game, empty rows and thin sections are abundant, the real numbers closer to the 70,000-80,000 range -- still a stout number, just one that doesn't come close to giving the cavernous stadium a big-game feel.

"Hopefully, it will be a great crowd," O'Brien said. "I'm not in charge of ticket sales or anything like that. I would imagine that the Penn State fans will turn out in force to show their respect for the senior class that stuck with this university and stuck with this football program."

The harsh penalties levied against the program in 2012 included a four-year bowl ban and scholarship cuts. The NCAA gave players an out -- they could leave if they wanted without having to worry about transfer rules and play right away.

In the end, 10 players transferred, though more than 90 percent of the team stayed.

That includes the bulk of this year's class, one that has impressed O'Brien daily with its work ethic, strong bond with the coaching staff, and its ability to embrace a leadership role when the program needed them the most.

"They stuck with this university, they stuck with this program and they didn't have to after the sanctions came out," O'Brien said. "I think that says it all about this class."

The seniors have mostly moved on from the Sandusky scandal and all that went with it.

"It seems like it was so long ago that everything happened," senior safety Malcolm Willis said.

He's not alone.

"We don't ever mention it," senior center Ty Howle said. "I know going through it, it's shaped a lot of us and made us stronger. So we're happy for the opportunity we've had here at Penn State."

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