Nittany Lions seniors were a breath of fresh air

LOS ANGELES -- A coach's greatest fear about losing is the way it lingers, like cigarette smoke. When the coach walks into a recruit's living room, the smell of losing comes in the door with him.

When this year's seniors signed in February 2005, Penn State had finished with losing records in four of the previous five seasons. The cumulative record over those five years: 26-33. Joe Paterno had just turned 78 years old. Brian Cushing, a prep All-American linebacker from New Jersey, Paterno's recruiting backyard for decades, signed with USC.

"I wasn't sure what he was going to do," Cushing said Monday. "That was definitely a concern of mine. I didn't know exactly what was going to happen."

Cushing went elsewhere. So did a lot of blue-chippers. You couldn't blame them. Penn State had just gone 4-7. But from those seeds of doubt has grown something to behold. Penn State started winning again.

Eleven fourth-year players who signed that February, and seven fifth-year players who had come a year earlier, will be in the starting lineup Thursday when No. 8 Penn State plays No. 5 USC in the Rose Bowl.

In 2005, as freshmen learning from leaders such as quarterback Michael Robinson and linebacker Paul Posluszny, they helped Penn State go 11-1 and win the Big Ten championship. Over the past four years, the Nittany Lions are 40-10. They will play in their second BCS bowl in their four seasons. Nearly all of this year's seniors have earned their degrees, and there lies among them a bond that comes from achieving a common goal through hard work.

We had faith in the program at that time. We felt like we helped make a difference.

-- Penn State WR Deon Butler

The most prominent player in the signing class of 2005, all-purpose star Derrick Williams, will finish his Penn State career as the most dangerous player in a Nittany Lions uniform. Williams stood out from the moment he signed to play for Paterno. Williams stood out not only because of his talent, but because of how much he differed from the rest of the class. Many of the stars of this senior class did not go to Penn State burdened by high expectations. Paterno and his staff found them and signed them anyway.

Fourth-year junior quarterback Daryll Clark came after Pennsylvania prep star Chad Henne decommitted and declared his allegiance to Michigan. Quarterback coach Jay Paterno had noticed Clark, from Youngstown, Ohio, while watching video of a tight end. Clark acceded to Joe Paterno's demand that he spend a year in prep school to shore up his academics. His grades had scared away many schools.

"He said to my parents, 'Grades don't show what kind of person he is. We want him to play quarterback,'" Clark said.

Clark sat for three years, waiting for his turn. When the time came this past spring, he seized the starting job by the throat.

"We definitely have developed a friendship and a bond, especially with guys like Daryll," Williams said. "I can remember when Daryll first came in, you could definitely see the guys who were going to make an impact on the team. He was one of those guys."

Senior wide receiver Jordan Norwood, whose father, Brian, had been Penn State's safeties coach until leaving this season for the defensive coordinator job at Baylor, thinks he might have ended up at Houston or Tulsa had Paterno not offered him a scholarship. Penn State offensive coordinator Galen Hall said Paterno didn't throw Norwood a bone because he was already part of the Penn State family.

"Joe saw him play basketball," Hall said, "and said, 'This is a player I want.'"

Norwood started one up on classmate and fellow wideout Deon Butler, who walked on to play at Penn State.

"People missed on him. We missed on him," Hall said. "Thank God we found him."

Butler had some interest from Wake Forest, but he went to Penn State, check in hand.

"We had faith in the program at that time," Butler said of himself and his classmates. "We felt like we helped make a difference. We've been through so much. We've been through more off-the-field incidents and how much publicity they got. That helped us bond together."

There have been arrests and court cases. They have seen classmates Chris Baker, a blue-chip recruit and a budding star on the defensive line, and defensive back Willie Harriott get thrown off the team for not staying out of trouble with the law. They have closed ranks, learned what not to do and learned how to lean on each other.

"Anytime you get good players that can stay four or five years, you should be pretty good," Hall said. "They came when they could have gone other places. They saw Penn State for what it is."

They came together barely out of high school, and now they have one game left to play as a team.

"I think the only time it really hit us was on Senior Day [Nov. 22 versus Michigan State], when we were introduced before the game," fifth-year senior safety Mark Rubin said. "Some guys were crying, and everybody was emotional. The five years went by so fast, and sometimes it feels like forever ago. We are the first class in Penn State history to win two Big Ten titles. From where we were to where we are seems forever ago."

A fresh wind blew through Penn State. The smell of losing is gone.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at ivan.maisel@espn3.com. His new book, "The Maisel Report: College Football's Most Overrated & Underrated Players, Coaches, Teams, and Traditions," is on sale now. For more information, go to TheMaiselReport.com.