STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Penn State's season of change has arrived at another milestone.
The first road game comes Saturday when the Nittany Lions visit Virginia, and fullback Michael Zordich is prepared for anything.
"We've said since Day 1 that road games are going to be brutal for us," said Zordich, one of Penn State's senior leaders. "That's something you're going to have to deal with ... If anything, you have to let it motivate you."
A media microscope has focused on the program since retired defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky's arrest last November on child sex abuse charges plunged the university into turmoil. Since then, the NCAA has levied landmark sanctions including a four-year bowl ban and significant scholarship cuts.
A passionate fan base rallied around the players who had nothing to do with the scandal during last week's emotional season opener, a 24-14 loss to Ohio.
This week, Zordich and linebacker Michael Mauti led a players meeting to get the Nittany Lions (0-1) refocused.
"We're tough-minded. We stick together no matter what," safety Malcolm Willis said. Mauti and Zordich "told us we have to step up even more now. There's an even bigger target on our backs and we have to stand in the face of adversity and face it."
Last November, Ohio State went to great lengths to make sure fans were on their best behavior for Penn State's visit to the Horseshoe — the first road game in 2011 since Sandusky's arrest and the firing of Hall of Fame coach Joe Paterno.
The day before the game, players learned that Paterno had been diagnosed with lung cancer. After all the distractions, Penn State summoned its best effort of the season with a 20-14 win over the Buckeyes.
Paterno died in January at age 85. His successor, Bill O'Brien is familiar with 61,000-seat Scott Stadium in Charlottesville from his days as an assistant coach at ACC schools Duke and Georgia Tech.
Those crowds might have paled to what O'Brien experienced on the road in his previous job as offensive coordinator with the New England Patriots. Playing the New York Jets, after all, at MetLife Stadium is no easy task. Neither is visiting the Raiders and the "Black Hole" in Oakland at the Coliseum.
O'Brien intended to pump up the noise at practice this week to try to simulate a loud road environment. AC/DC's rock anthem "Back in Black" roared across the practice field at one point while the Nittany Lions stretched Wednesday.
"It's a very loud home crowd, it's a great home advantage for Virginia," O'Brien said. "That's the biggest thing, not what they're yelling, but how loud they are."
The stakes are relatively high for Virginia (1-0) even at this early juncture. With road games at Georgia Tech and TCU looming, the Cavaliers hope to build on their 43-19 rout of FCS Richmond last week.
"Some of it you can control, some of it you can't control," Virginia coach Mike London said when asked about his expectations for Saturday's crowd. "The numbers, as far as crowd, I would hope that this game is close to being sold out because of the implications of us having a chance to be 2 0."
London, at one point, was rumored to be a potential candidate for the Penn State job. He watched from afar as O'Brien worked to keep more than 90 percent of the team together after the NCAA allowed Penn State players to transfer immediately after sanctions were announced.
"You look at it, and you felt bad for Coach O'Brien, because here he is, just gets there, finds out what's going on, and players have a chance not only to leave at that time, but again leave at the end of the season if they don't go in and play," London said. "So I'm quite sure he's trying to put a gameplan together and a program together to keep these guys together."
Unity doesn't seem to be a big problem these days with a Nittany Lions squad that has endured tremendous adversity. If anything, the road trip might be a relief — just for a change of scenery.
"We've been up here since August," defensive tackle Jordan Hill said. "It will be cool to get off campus a little bit for the weekend."
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