STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — A white towel draped over his shoulder, the new Penn State coach in the white polo shirt donned headphones to communicate with his assistants in the press box as he paced the sideline.
These are now Bill O’Brien’s Nittany Lions — and they are off to a disappointing start.
In front of 97,000 vocal fans eager to just watch football again, Penn State let an 11-point halftime lead slip away and Ohio quarterback Tyler Tettleton accounted for three second-half touchdowns to hand O’Brien a 24-14 loss in his coaching debut.
“I thought it was a great atmosphere in the stands,” O’Brien said before stoically taking responsibility for the loss. “Again, it starts with me and coaching better and making sure we play better next time.”
For many fans, just watching a game at Beaver Stadium represented a small victory following a trying offseason that included the death of former coach Joe Paterno, and crippling NCAA sanctions placed on the program for the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal.
“We are … Penn State,” the anxious crowd roared in the fourth quarter, even in the final minutes with defeat assured. It was the first loss to open a season for Penn State since falling 33-7 to Miami in 2001.
“It got everyone back together,” fan Lisa Weller, 48, of Charlotte, N.C., referring to the team and the massive Penn State fan base, said about Saturday’s game. “Everyone is going to move forward.’
Matt McGloin threw for 260 yards and two touchdowns guiding Penn State’s new-look offense.
There were some other changes, too: players’ names on the backs of the uniforms, and blue ribbons on the back of the helmets to show support for victims of child sexual abuse.
Long a model for stability, the scandal lurched the program into a rebuilding project no one expected a year ago.
Now Penn State is playing without someone named Paterno on the sideline for the first time since 1949. The late Hall of Famer arrived in Happy Valley as an assistant in 1950 and took over as head coach in 1966.
The man known in these parts as “JoePa” stayed on the job for 46 seasons before his firing last November days after Sandusky, his former defensive coordinator, was arrested.
Paterno’s widow, Sue Paterno, watched the game from a stadium suite. Paterno died in January, and as part of his employment agreement the family got use of the suite for 25 years.
O’Brien took over in January after serving as offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots. From his first day on the job, he promised to stay focused on the present and the future of Penn State football.
O’Brien spent much of the afternoon pacing the same sideline that Paterno once walked with his trademark khakis and jet-black sneakers.
With the towel, the new coach sported a look reminiscent of Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson.
Even in defeat, Saturday was a huge first step.
“We were obviously emotional,” guard John Urschel said. “We’ve been extremely excited to get back to playing football, but at the same time, we managed our emotions once the game got going. We got back into football mode, just playing the game.”
Ohio coach Frank Solich knew Saturday would be unlike an average game day.
“We knew that we were going to have to take on a surge. That surge would come from their fans, come from their players, the atmosphere. We knew it would be a difficult atmosphere to play in,” Solich said. “What we told them is, ‘We just have to keep pounding fellas. This is a game that’s going to be a four-quarter football game.'”
McGloin was 27 for 48 passing — both career-highs — with one interception, while sophomore Allen Robinson had a nice debut as the No. 1 wideout with nine catches on 97 yards.
But the pesky Bobcats weren’t the typical season-opening pushover for Penn State.
“I thought there was some definite good out there,” O’Brien said. “But we’ve got to be able to string plays together, and coaching on offense, it starts with me … When the defense is on the field, we’ve got to get stops.”
Trailing 14-3 at halftime, Tettleton hit Landon Smith on a 43-yard touchdown pass that had first tipped off the hands of Penn State defensive back Stephen Obeng-Agyapong with 10:40 in the third quarter.
Tettleton scampered in from a yard out to take a 17-14 lead almost seven minutes later.
Tettleton finished 31 of 41 passing for 324 yards and two scores, and added 47 yards and a score on nine carries on the ground. Beau Blankenship had 109 yards on 31 carries.
Penn State’s front seven — thought to be the strength of the team — got dented by Ohio’s fast-paced offense. Warm, humid conditions also seemed to tire players, and cornerback Stephon Morris later left with an ankle injury.
“I think the line was able to take control of the game. I think we wore them down a little bit,” Solich said. “I think maybe our pace took a toll and did help us in the game.”
Freshmen and other new faces played key roles all over the field for Penn State, necessitated in part by some transfers following the NCAA sanctions and other offseason departures.
A huge cheer erupted after freshman linebacker Nyeem Wartman burst up the middle to block an Ohio punt that Penn State recovered at the Bobcats 18. Wartman was one of four freshmen to debut Saturday.
Three plays later, junior tight end Matt Lehman, playing his first game, nearly lost his footing along the sideline before bursting into the end zone for a 14-yard score and a 14-3 lead.
An offense that used a lot of no-huddle looked OK without 1,200-rusher Silas Redd and receiver Justin Brown, who elected to transfer following the NCAA penalties.
But McGloin and the offense went scoreless after halftime and second-half defense hurt Penn State. A missed tackle by safety Malcolm Willis helped Smith get free for a 31-yard gain to the Penn State 5 on third-and-2 with less than four minutes left, one of several key third-down conversations for the Bobcats.
Tettleton’s 5-yard touchdown pass to Donte Foster in the corner of the end zone with 2:55 left put an exclamation point on Ohio’s first win over a Big Ten opponent since a 20-17 victory over Illinois in 2006.
Ohio returned eight starters on defense, while Tettleton is one of the MAC’s top quarterbacks after setting 12 new school records last season.
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