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Column: One star who never made it to the stadium

Penn State interim head coach Tom Bradley acknowledges the student section during warm ups before an NCAA college football game against Nebraska in State College, Pa., Saturday, Nov. 12, 2011. Penn State interim head coach Tom Bradley acknowledges the student section during warm ups before an NCAA college football game against Nebraska in State College, Pa., Saturday, Nov. 12, 2011. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
By Jim Litke
AP Sports Columnist / November 12, 2011

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STATE COLLEGE, Pa.—Games are supposed to be about the guys who show up.

Not this one.

Penn State didn't lose 17-14 Saturday to Nebraska just because Joe Paterno wasn't there. Or because the Nittany Lions were emotionally exhausted or lacking effort after one of the most trying weeks any football team has had to withstand.

They lost this particular game because they were offensively inept, something that was a problem even when Joe was around. Penn State won eight of its previous 10 games mostly because of a stout defense and good luck than almost anything he did. It won because of a few rugged goal-line stands late and the occasional game-tying field goal clanking off the upright.

Paterno set the tone for the team, but he's been more a CEO than head coach for several seasons. Now he's out of a job, pushed aside after 46 seasons in the wake of a scandal that erupted a week ago, when former longtime assistant and one-time heir apparent Jerry Sandusky was charged with serial child sex-abuse.

The team decided to mark his absence by leaving the first seat on the bus empty for the ride to Beaver Stadium. Asked where its usual occupant would be spending the day, Jay Paterno, Joe's son and Penn State's quarterbacks coach, replied, "Who knows?

"Maybe he's out cutting the grass," Jay added, then thought about it some more. "I doubt it. He can't now. There are 800 media cameras."

From a practical standpoint, the Nittany Lions probably missed receivers coach Mike McQueary even more. Most weeks, McQueary is down on the field, signaling the plays he gets over his headset from offensive coordinator Galen Hall and Jay Paterno up in the press box, then making sure the personnel group in the huddle matches the call.

This Saturday, McQueary was at an undisclosed location because he had received threats, yet one more unforeseen consequence of the events of the past week. McQueary was a 28-year-old grad assistant in March, 2002, when he walked into the team's locker room one night to grab some game film, heard noises coming from the shower and headed in that direction. He would later tell a grand jury that he saw Sandusky assaulting a boy of about 10.

Like Joe Paterno, McQueary has been vilified for not doing more to stop an alleged sexual predator though, so far, he's been placed on administrative leave and not fired. Unsettling as it must have been for his fellow coaches and players to find out Friday night -- via a conference call -- that McQueary wasn't going to be with them, they missed him even more on the very first play.

Interim head coach Tom Bradley scrambled to come up with something simple to open the game -- a fullback dive, Joe's bread-and-butter play -- and who knows how many fans assumed it was some kind of tribute. It wasn't.

"We had a little bit on confusion early," conceded Bradley, who didn't begin preparing for his new job until he received a call from new school president Rod Erickson late Wednesday night.

Jay Paterno assumed McQueary's duties on the sideline, in addition to his regular role calling the pass plays. After that rocky start, he settled down by remembering something his father said.

"Joe was always telling us about `the blue line of practice.' When you cross the blue line, the only thing you can control is what you're doing right there," Jay recalled." So we just had to imagine there was a blue line coming into this stadium and once we were here, we were focused on the task at hand. Just a little short."

Afterward, he talked about dropping a letter off at his parents' house earlier in the day, including a line that read, "Dad, I wish you were here."

So did plenty of others by day's end.

Joe Paterno's real value to Penn State football hasn't been as a strategist or taskmaster for some time now. Instead, he's been its institutional memory. An illustration of that came earlier in the week, when Paterno's future became the focal point of a debate and former Nittany Lion and current Chicago Bears defender Anthony Adams weighed in.

He told the story of being one minute late for practice one day and having Paterno lecture him. The coach explained that Adams might have only been a minute late, but because there were 120 players on the team, he actually wasted 120 minutes. The point was it's not just things that determine success or failure; sometimes you have to sweat the small stuff, too.

"At the time you're just going, `Why you keep naggin' and naggin'?' " Adams said. "But, I mean, you don't realize the type of impact they have on your life until you leave."

Jack Ham, the perennial NFL All-Pro linebacker who retired from the Steelers in 1982, has been gone from Penn State for a lot longer. On his way out of Saturday's game, he stopped to confirm that message.

"I'll get around to calling Joe soon, but he's gone through a lot lately," he said. "I'm pretty sure when I do, though, one thing I'll hear is how much he wishes everybody would quit saying they're going to miss him."

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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org. Follow him at http://Twitter.com/JimLitke.