The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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December 30, 2012

Penn State football headlined Pennsylvania sports in 2012

STATE COLLEGE — A season’s worth of anger, confusion and frustration seemingly evaporated in one collective roar for 93,000 Penn State fans after a potential game-tying field goal sailed left of the upright in overtime.

In a 2012 full of familiar disappointment for Pennsylvania sports fans – from the collapse of the Eagles to the Pirates’ second-half swoon – a thrilling end in Happy Valley gave the Nittany Lions faithful hope for a future that once looked murky for reasons other than football.

The turmoil and revival for Penn State football headlined a roller-coaster year in Pennsylvania sports.

The Nittany Lions aren’t finished after all, not by a longshot.

“How can you not come here?” Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin said recently when asked what message he would send to potential recruits. “That last game says it all – it’s better than any bowl game that I’ve ever played in.”

Penn State’s well-known predicament started in July, when the NCAA levied landmark sanctions including a four-year postseason ban and significant scholarship cuts for the school’s handling of the child molestation scandal involving former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.

But the school withstood the departure of about a dozen players after the NCAA sanctions in July behind the leadership of first-year coach Bill O’Brien and a senior class including McGloin that refused to give in. The 24-21 overtime win over Wisconsin on a cold, late November night was a microcosm of a season of adversity.

The year began with the death in January of former coach Joe Paterno, who had recruited most of the current team and still inspired loyalty among top players despite being fired by school trustees in the aftermath of the scandal.

It ended with O’Brien getting lauded for his coaching job and rallying alumni, the community and students around the Nittany Lions, who finished an unlikely 8-4.

“I think a lot of other guys outside of that network are probably surprised and look at that as a grand accomplishment,” said Dolphins defensive end and former Nittany Lion Cameron Wake. “But I think that anybody who has that blue and white in their blood wouldn’t expect anything less.”

In Philadelphia, Eagles coach Andy Reid buried his 29-year-old son, Garrett,  who was found dead in his dorm room at Lehigh University in Bethlehem on Aug. 5 during the team’s training camp. A coroner ruled in October that Garrett Reid died of an accidental heroin overdose. He also said steroids were found in his room, but that they were not related to his death.

On the field, the franchise’s slide down the NFC East standings continued. An in-season shakeup  to the coaching staff couldn’t prevent Philly from missing the playoffs for a second straight season.

A concussion sidelined quarterback Michael Vick, and the futures of both Vick and Reid in Philadelphia remained questionable at best amid a string of losses.

In contrast, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and coach Mike Tomlin are both firmly entrenched in Pittsburgh, where the Steelers remain a threat in the AFC North in spite their aging defensive core.  

The Broncos stunned Pittsburgh on wild-card weekend last January after then-Denver quarterback Tim Tebow threw an 80-yard touchdown pass on the first play of overtime for a 29-23 win. By December, the Steelers were in a dogfight to stay in playoff contention in 2012 despite a banged-up roster.

Staying in a playoff chase has been a foreign concept for the Pirates. But with center fielder Andrew McCutcheon leading the way in a breakout campaign, Pittsburgh stormed to a first-place finish at the All-Star break to stir the postseason hopes of long-suffering Pirates fans.

But The Streak lives on.

The Pirates unraveled slowly and steadily over the final seven weeks to turn a 16-game cushion over the .500 mark in early August into a 79-83 finish and a record 20th straight losing season.

The Phillies had been unaccustomed to losing, not with a roster chock full of star players and a pitching staff led by Roy Halladay.

Injuries to Doc and sluggers Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, though, turned out to be too much for Philadelphia to overcome. The Phillies’ run of five consecutive NL East titles ended, as did a streak of nine straight winning seasons, after an 81-81 finish. Manager Charlie Manuel’s club did manage to play better in August and September and hovered just above .500 at times over the final few weeks of the season.

NHL hockey is a distant memory with the 2012 season on lockout hold. No chance for the Flyers to see if they can build on the 103-point campaign in 2011-12 that resulted in a fifth-place finish in the Eastern Conference.

They did get to claim in-state bragging rights, at least, after a first-round playoff win over the odds-on Stanley Cup favorite Penguins.

Instead of worrying about the power play, Penguins star Sidney Crosby is simply worried about just playing. The 2007 MVP, limited to just 28 games since January 2011 because concussions, is now healthy and thinking about skating in Europe with the labor dispute still shutting down the NHL.

“I just want to play hockey,” Crosby told reporters after an informal workout with some of his teammates this month.

On the hardwood, the Philadelphia 76ers had a successful 2011-12 season with their first winning record in seven seasons. They also took a playoff series for the first time since 2003 by knocking off the top-seeded Chicago Bulls, raising hopes for the future.

The Sixers then traded for 7-foot center Andrew Bynum in a multi-team deal that sent All-Star forward Andre Iguodala to Denver. But Bynum has yet to suit up in Philly because of injuries to each of his knees.

In college basketball, Big East powers Villanova and Pittsburgh each had disappointing seasons to snuff out long streaks of NCAA tournament appearances. Temple did make the NCAAs for a fifth straight year but fell to 12th-seeded South Florida in the second round.

No, this year’s NCAA darlings resided in Bethlehem, where 15th-seed Lehigh beat second-seeded Duke in a second-round stunner. The win made the Mountain Hawks the new standard-bearers for upsets in the brainy Patriot League, pushing aside in-state rival Bucknell’s takedown of Kansas as a No. 14 seed in the 2005 tournament.

In women’s basketball, Penn State returned to Big Ten prominence after winning the regular-season league title for the first time since 2004. The Lady Lions are a mainstay in the Top 25 once again under coach Coquese Washington.

Penn State’s also building a dynasty on the wrestling mat, where head coach and Olympic gold medalist Cael Sanderson led the Nittany Lions to a second consecutive national title in March.

At the race track, Jeff Gordon and Joey Logano each won a NASCAR race at Pocono – but the northeastern Pennsylvania tri-oval made just as much news away from the pits.

Joseph Mattioli, the founder and chairman of Pocono Raceway, died in January at age 86 following a lengthy illness. One fan died and nine others were hurt by lightning strikes in the raceway parking lot after the August race won by Gordon.

In November, IndyCar announced it was returning to Pocono in 2013 following a 23-year absence.

Back on the football field, Steve Addazio followed up his 9-4 season in his first year as Temple’s coach in 2011 with a 4-7 record – then bolted for Boston College. Not even the Owls’ move back to the Big East could keep Addazio from taking a job with an Atlantic Coast Conference school.

Like Addazio, Pitt is also leaving the Big East for the ACC next season. And it appears that first-year coach Paul Chryst, a former Wisconsin assistant, will shepherd the Panthers into its new league after Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez signaled this month that he wouldn’t pursue Chryst for the Badgers coaching job.

Chryst has also said he’s committed to Pitt. The Panthers finished 2012 at 6-6 and received a bid to play in the BBVA Compass Bowl a third straight year, this time against Mississippi.

A bowl game is something that Penn State can’t attain for another three years. Challenges surely remain, too, with scholarship cuts seemingly forcing O’Brien to rely more on walk-ons to fill depth.

But on the field, at least, O’Brien seems to have restored order to a program during a remarkable season of change.

 

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