Sean Lee was so keyed up for Penn State's season opener Saturday against Akron that he woke up at 4:30 the morning before the game.
Worried that he might leave his A game at the team hotel, Lee let his mind wander in hope of drifting off again.
You start thinking about the game and your adrenalin pumps and you've got to think about something else. You get all worried, like, 'Maybe I'm not going to have enough rest for the game,' said the fifth-year senior linebacker. So I tried thinking about prior football games, prior basketball games, what I was watching on TV. Anything to go back to sleep.
It didn't help. Lee never did doze off.
But it didn't matter. He and the rest of the Penn State defensive front seven dominated the Zips. The Nittany Lions were merciless in the first half, allowing only 8 total yards and no first downs. And even after a lackluster second half that left Joe Paterno less than satisfied, they still finished with impressive numbers. All told, Penn State surrendered only 28 rushing yards and eight first downs while amassing four sacks and 13 tackles for loss.
Lee, of course, missed all of last season while recovering from the right knee injury he sustained the previous spring. With months of painful rehab finally behind him, he savored the moment Saturday when he emerged from out of the tunnel into a raucous Beaver Stadium, the first time he had done so since the Nittany Lions' home finale against Purdue on Nov. 3, 2007.
I had those chills down my back again, he said. I walked out with Daryll [Clark] and saw the crowd in the background, and it was unbelievable for me, especially with all the work I've put in. I've been out for a long time. I haven't played since 2007, and to be back was just unbelievable.
Penn State wasn't sure what to expect from the Zips, whose offense was under the direction of new coordinator Walt Harris, the former Pitt and Stanford coach. They rotated their quarterbacks and frequently used a no-huddle offense, but they only caught Penn State flat-footed once -- on a 40-yard touchdown pass from Chris Jacquemain to Deryn Bowser immediately following a Nittany Lion fumble.
We got pretty much what we thought, defensive coordinator Tom Bradley said. I thought our front four dominated up front, which enabled us to do some things with our coverage in the secondary.
Penn State didn't have a flawless afternoon on defense. Linebacker Navorro Bowman aggravated a preseason groin injury in the first half, and his availability next week and beyond is unknown. Moreover, the Lions didn't appear to be as sharp in the second half as they were in the first, either on offense or defense. Besides the touchdown, they allowed Akron to go 56 yards on 11 plays on the opening drive of the second half before clamping down and stuffing Jacquemain on a keeper on fourth-and-goal at the 2.
The brief lapse in intensity gave Paterno something to kvetch about in the postgame news conference and had players vowing to do better as the nonconference season continues next week against Syracuse.
When you have a team down, you have to keep them down, defensive tackle Ollie Ogbu said. A lot of times when you're up by a lot of points, you tend to relax and kind of just say, 'We've won.' But you have to keep on going, keep on fighting and rushing them and playing hard. That'll come with experience. We had a lot of young guys out there today.
True. And on top of that, some of the Lions' most experienced players were more geeked up than usual for this year's opener. Jerome Hayes, for example, was feeling much as Lee did. He couldn't sleep as he awaited his first game back after missing most of the past two seasons with knee injuries. The senior defensive end fell asleep after midnight at the team hotel, woke up again at 3:30 a.m., fell back asleep and then woke up at 6 and tossed and turned the rest of the morning. By kickoff, he was more than ready to test his surgically repaired knee and get the Lions' eagerly awaited season off to a strong start.
It's a lot different playing in front of 110,000 people than practicing with your teammates, Hayes said. I'm glad I got it out of the way today, I'm ready to move forward and get ready for Syracuse.