Lions try to keep emotions in check

Every football game triggers emotion for 18- to 22-year-old players who work year-round for a dozen guaranteed days in the spotlight.

Every season opener heightens the adrenaline after eight months of toil. Factor in what Penn State players have been through over the past eight months, and their emotional roller-coaster will reach its apex shortly after noon Saturday at Beaver Stadium.

Among the key events since the Lions last left the game field Jan. 2 at the TicketCity Bowl in Dallas ...

  • Jan. 6: The hiring of new coach Bill O'Brien, the program's first new leader since 1966

  • Jan. 22: The death of former coach Joe Paterno

  • June: The trial and conviction of former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky

  • July 12: The release of the university-commissioned Freeh report, which detailed a cover-up at the highest levels of leadership at the school

  • July 23: The NCAA leveling historically severe sanctions against the program, including a four-year postseason ban beginning this fall

  • Late July-early August: The transfers of nine players, including star running back Silas Redd

The scrutiny has been there for months, and all Penn State players have wanted to do is play football. They finally return to the game field Saturday against Ohio University in a season opener unlike any other in the history of the school -- or the sport.

"It's going to be an exciting and very emotional day," Lions senior quarterback Matthew McGloin said last week. "We've been getting pretty anxious. You can't help but think what that's going to be like coming out of the tunnel."

Added senior linebacker Michael Mauti: "It’s going to be very emotional, not only for me but for everybody in the stadium."

Even O'Brien, whose last game was Super Bowl XLVI, admitted he'll have butterflies before kickoff Saturday.

"I'd be crazy to tell you otherwise," he said. "I mean, this is my first football game as a head football coach."

The challenge for Penn State players -- and, to a lesser extent, the coaches -- on Saturday is harnessing their emotions without becoming overwhelmed or reckless. Saturday marks the Lions' first opportunity to "punch back," as O'Brien said in July.

But if the Lions take things too far, they'll be in trouble against a talented Ohio team that comes to town with little to lose.

"It's going to be our job really to handle that and to control that," Mauti said. "After all the things that have gone on this offseason, to finally get back to doing what we love to do, and that's play football on Saturday, it's going to be really exciting. ... Every football game's going to be emotional, it's going to be exciting, but at the end of the day, you've got to read your keys, get off blocks, as a defender you've got to make tackles. You've got to play football.

"So as excited as we get, that's our job to control that."

O'Brien plays a big role as well, despite the opener being his first game as a head coach. He and his staff will emphasize focus and composure throughout the week.

They'll keep players busy Friday with meetings and a walk-through where game situations and special teams will be among the emphasis points.

"These are college guys," O'Brien said, "so when they run out there for the opening kickoff or the opening play on offense or defense, they're going to be excited. We just have to make sure that they understand once the ball is snapped, now we're playing football."