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Penn State trying not to get bowl hopes up

7/29/2014

CHICAGO -- Penn State tailback Bill Belton folded his hands under the table and shifted in his seat. He didn't want to answer the question; he didn't even want to think about it.

How would you guys react, hypothetically, if you're eligible for a bowl this year?

"How would you react if you were on a bowl ban?" Belton asked, before some mild back-and-forth. "I'm just saying, like, if you were a kid in a program and you were in a bowl ban, it would be exciting. That's what I'm saying."

It's an issue that Belton didn't want to dwell on because it's hung over the heads of the Nittany Lions since 2012, when a four-year bowl ban was levied alongside unprecedented sanctions. But the question at Big Ten media days seemed more newsworthy than usual considering two key reasons -- one, the second annual Mitchell Report outlining PSU's progress is expected to be released in early September and, two, several Pennsylvania congressmen recently wrote a letter to the NCAA asking for it to rescind the sanctions.

Belton, a senior, didn't seem to want to get his hopes up. This is his final season, after all, and he's already been forced to come to terms with the fact he'll end his career without another postseason berth. Maybe the only thing worse than that realization is believing otherwise -- only to find disappointment yet again.

"We just continue to work on what we have to do to get better," he said Monday afternoon. "That's something the guys don't think about. All we're trying to do is prepare for UCF."

But there might be some cause for hope. NCAA president Mark Emmert reduced the sanctions on scholarships last season, and Emmert acknowledged last fall that further reductions could be considered this August or September. Of course, a lot of that has to do with the results of the annual Mitchell Report -- which, in all likelihood, will once again be a glowing one for Penn State.

Granted, that's still not a guarantee there'll be a reduction. But it doesn't mean Penn State is locked into its current penalties either. Really, at this point, it's anyone's guess.

"We don't know any more than you guys, to be honest," said kicker Sam Ficken, also a senior. "Obviously, we hope it's lifted. But, if not, we're going to approach the season the same way. That's not going to affect how we play the 12 regular-season games.

"If we get to that point and we're able to do that, that's awesome. That would be a good way to go out. But if it doesn't happen? Well, I still had a heck of a time at Penn State. We all play for each other and play for the fans, and that's not going to change."

Five Pennsylvania congressmen -- including U.S. Rep Glenn Thompson, who invited James Franklin to the State of the Union Address -- signed a two-page letter to Emmert on Thursday to request an elimination of the sanctions. They wrote the penalties "harm innocent student athletes and further erodes the increasingly specious credibility of the [NCAA]."

The politicians also asked Emmert to answer two questions in a timely fashion. For one, they wonder how the NCAA can reconcile its mission statement with the fact many of those affected were high school students at the time of the Consent Decree's enforcement. And, two, if the NCAA already acknowledged it lacked authority to fine Penn State for criminal activity of a former employee, how can it still insist on punitive measures?

Senior linebacker Mike Hull wasn't asked about all the political jargon or whether this group, or that report, would be successful in restoring bowl games or past wins. But he did address that possibility of a bowl game, of a last hurrah for him and the Penn State seniors.

"We talk about it as players off the field a little bit, but we really don't want to get our hopes up," he said. "We want to take it one day at a time, one game at a time, and play the same way regardless of whether we're going to a bowl game or not. It's a special place at Penn State."