- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Record: 9-3 (6-2 Big Ten)
Penn State spent the first two months of the season winning ugly and struggling to gain national respect. Nittany Lions players, coaches and fans long for those days right now.
The sex-abuse scandal that broke in early November forever changed Penn State football and Penn State University. Eleven days after Joe Paterno broke Eddie Robinson's Division I coaching victories record, Paterno was fired by the school's board of trustees, triggering an outpouring of emotion in State College during an unforgettable week. Although the Lions played no games between Oct. 29 and Nov. 12, their program endured historic changes and scrutiny.
On the field, Penn State won eight of its first nine games and surged to the top of the Leaders Division. Despite a befuddling quarterback rotation, the Lions racked up victories behind a stifling defense, workhorse running back Silas Redd and solid special teams play. Penn State's defense overcame a season-ending injury to standout linebacker Michael Mauti and received tremendous performances from tackle Devon Still, linebacker Gerald Hodges and others.
Needing two wins in its final three games to secure a division title and a trip to the championship game, Penn State lost an emotion-charged game against Nebraska. More tough news arrived the next week as Paterno was diagnosed with lung cancer. The team rebounded with a win at Ohio State and vowed to put a Post-it note on the Big Ten championship trophy, which no longer bore Paterno's name. But Penn State's title dream vanished in Madison as Wisconsin overwhelmed the Lions.
No team in America endured a month like Penn State did in November. While Penn State's record more or less matched preseason expectations, there was nothing ordinary about this season.
Offensive MVP: Redd. The sophomore emerged as one of the Big Ten's best running backs, especially during the month of October when he led the FBS with 703 rushing yards and averaged 140.6 yards per game. Although Redd's 133 carries during the month took its toll on his body, he showed he's much more than the shifty runner we saw in 2010. He really reinvented himself and showed he can be Penn State's featured back for years to come.
Defensive MVP: Still. An easy choice here as Still earned Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and Defensive Lineman of the Year honors. He recorded 17 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery, and his numbers don't truly show how much he impacted games as a disruptive presence on the interior. In a league filled with outstanding defensive lineman, Still rose to the top. Hodges merits a mention at linebacker.
Turning point: The final three games would have been tough for Penn State no matter what, but the situation became even more challenging following the scandal and Paterno's firing. Penn State's players endured a range of emotions and the coaching staff had to make quick adjustments. The Nebraska loss snapped a seven-game win streak and Penn State dropped two of its final three games.
What's next: Several bowl games passed up Penn State for teams with fewer wins that the Lions defeated, and PSU dropped all the way to the TicketCity Bowl. Some Lions players were upset by the snub, and it will be interesting to see how motivated they'll be to face Houston at Cotton Bowl Stadium. A coaching search is under way as Penn State looks for a leader to guide the program through a turbulent and uncertain period.
15hJosh Moyer and Mitch Sherman