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Rally in the Valley

Posted by ESPN.com’s David Albright

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Don’t stop believing.

That was the message and the sentiment on Friday night at the Bryce Jordan Center on the campus of Penn State University.

It’s where a crowd of more than 7,500 gathered to watch a football coach play the headliner at a college pep rally (apparently they still exist).

Students walked over from nearby residence halls like Bigler and Hastings and Pennypacker. And the locals drove over from nearby towns like Frackville and Lucky Furnace and Snow Shoe.

And on this crisp November night Happy Valley was transformed into Rally Valley.

Thanks to an 82-year-old messiah named Joe Paterno.

The opening act at the BJC was Ed DeChellis’ basketball team, which dispatched Slippery Rock by a score of 82-51 (it was 19-0 in favor of the Nittany Lions before the Rock scored).

JoePa’s football team, currently 8-1 (4-1 in Big Ten) and ranked No. 11 in the BCS standings, will have a much tougher task on Saturday afternoon when No. 16 Ohio State (7-2) comes calling at Beaver Stadium (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC) in what on paper is an elimination game in the Big Ten -- not to mention the world of BCS bids.

No. 4 Iowa (9-0, 4-0), which beat Penn State back on Sept. 26, is still in the driver’s seat in the conference. The Hawkeyes travel to Columbus next Saturday in what could be another huge Big Ten game if the Buckeyes can leave central Pennsylvania with a victory.

And that’s why the white T-shirt-wearing students -- Saturday has been declared a "white out" for the student section -- and the blue-and-white clad adults gave up their Friday night to sit inside a basketball arena to witness what for all practical purposes should be considered a non-event.

When there’s a big game at Penn State, Friday night turns into a Rally in the Valley to try and set the tone for a positive outcome on Saturday.

It didn’t work back in September before the Iowa game. On that Friday night over at Rec Hall (the old basketball gym) a slightly smaller crowd gathered to kick off the football weekend but 24 hours later it was the visiting Hawkeyes who left with a 21-10 win.

Since then, Penn State has reeled off five consecutive wins -- albeit against lesser competition -- but the Nittany Lions are still in search of a signature win and Ohio State represents the last best chance to get one.

Win, and JoePa’s team is still in the hunt for a BCS bowl bid. Lose, and all that’s left are games against Indiana and Michigan State before it collects a postseason bowl bid to a nice but lesser destination.

Friday night’s pep rally included all of central casting's accoutrements.

There were cheerleaders. And the dance team. The Big Blue Band played. And the Nittany Lion mascot ran around. Videos were played. And T-shirts were given away. The crowd went back and forth with cheers of “We Are” and “Penn State.”

Even Jared from Subway fame made an appearance. If he could transform his life then why couldn’t Penn State beat an Ohio State team that’s 11-1 in November games since 2005 (the only loss coming in 2007 vs. Illinois)?

The last piece of the pep rally puzzle was the entrance of the football team and then Coach Paterno took his turn to address the crowd.

JoePa thanked the crowd and made special mention of the scout team and how the starters and the high-profile players couldn’t be successful without the efforts of the player who help them prepare each week. And as is his custom, he asked the crowd not to boo the Buckeyes on Saturday but rather to focus its energy on cheering for Penn State.

For a coach that’s been patrolling the sideline in Happy Valley longer (43 years) than many of the people in the crowd have been alive, he still possesses a captivating and commanding presence less than two months shy of his 83rd birthday.

Whether this latest edition of the Rally in the Valley is enough to translate into a résumé-building win remains to be seen.

Either way the meaningful portion of the 2009 football journey will effectively end for one team in Beaver Stadium on Saturday while the other will keep on believing -- at least for one more week.