UNIVERSITY PARK — Penn State’s football team returned to the practice field after receiving news of reduced sanctions on the players’ day off.
While the primary focus has been on this week’s opponent, Rutgers, and certainly not on a potential bowl game, the NCAA’s announcement Monday has reinvigorated the Nittany Lions as they prepare for the third game of their season.
"It puts some pep in your step and gets you ready to go," said senior safety Ryan Keiser, a Selinsgrove graduate.
The NCAA ruled that Penn State can play in a bowl game this year — if, of course, it wins six games — and it can also return to a maximum 85 scholarships beginning next season.
After the NCAA handed down unprecedented sanctions in July 2012 following the Sandusky scandal and subsequent internal investigation led by former FBI director Louis Freeh, Penn State was ruled ineligible for postseason play for four years. As part of the penalty, PSU was also docked scholarships and wouldn’t have been granted a full complement of 85 until 2016. The team currently suits up 70 scholarship players — give or take a few.
Beginning next season, Penn State will be allowed to compete with a full deck in the eyes of the NCAA. It doesn’t have to wait to play in a bowl game, though, and the Big Ten followed suit, as PSU is also eligible for the 2014 Big Ten Championship.
"It’s huge," Keiser added. "We’ve obviously been through a lot — the junior class, the senior class, everybody who stuck with it. Everybody with the program and everybody who stuck with us, we’re extremely thankful and appreciative of what we have. Getting those scholarships and bowl games back, we’re really thankful for it."
Returning to a full of allotment of 85 scholarships by next season, however, might prove difficult.
The exact numbers won’t be apparent until after graduation, but there’s a possibility that Penn State will have fewer than 60 scholarship players returning next season. As a Big Ten rule, Penn State can only sign 25 players per recruiting class, so the Nittany Lions could still be shorthanded when they begin next season.
"When you have a couple years when you aren’t able to sign 25, it makes it difficult to get back to 85 in one class," head coach James Franklin explained after practice Wednesday. "We want to make sure we understand that clearly, because it’s being reported that we can get to 85, and I don’t know if that’s completely possible."
Eye on Rutgers
While Penn State is certainly ecstatic with Monday’s announcements from the NCAA and Big Ten, the team has maintained focus on Rutgers.
The Nittany Lions travel to Piscataway, N.J., on Saturday to face the conference newcomer in their Big Ten opener (8 p.m./Big Ten Network). Although there’s been a buzz on campus this week, players say Rutgers is a team that cannot be taken lightly. So once practice began Monday, it was "business as usual" once again.
"We had a meeting and found out that we got the bowl game back," said Keiser. "It was obviously extremely exciting for us. We’ve gone two years without a bowl game and we missed it. We’re really thankful that we’re able to be bowl eligible again. Now, we just have to take care of our business and go get the win."
Since it’s the Nittany Lions first true away game of the year, their offense practiced in a noisy environment this week in order to prepare for a hostile crowd. Speakers blared white noise inside of Holuba Hall, the indoor practice facility, while quarterback Christian Hackenberg yelled his cadence to his offense.
And since it’s their first night game of the year, Franklin said they’ll take additional steps to prepare for that, too.
"There are a lot of things that factor into (a night game) that you wouldn’t think about," he said. "How much do you let them sleep? You don’t want to oversleep; you don’t want to undersleep. Meals — how do you time out your meals because typically you want to eat four hours before a game? Trying to time all those things out. Also you don’t want to have much downtime throughout the day. You want to let them watch (college football) games throughout the day, but we might take some of our Friday night responsibilities and shift them toward Saturday."
Keiser helps local product
Following Wednesday night’s practice, Keiser could be seen taking in an extra workout with teammate Brandon Smith, a Lewisburg graduate.
Smith, a redshirt freshman, walked on at Penn State as a linebacker and later switched to fullback. This fall, however, he has been seeing reps again on the defensive side of the ball.
After practice Wednesday, he could be seen doing additional linebacker drills while Keiser held the blocking pads.