The ambiance at Beaver Stadium was not great during Penn State's matchup Saturday against Minnesota. It rained. It snowed a little. It was cold. The parking lots were slick, and those that weren't slick were closed, the result of a freak snowstorm that hit central Pennsylvania Thursday and hovered above the region long enough to put a serious damper on Homecoming.
But as far as Sean Lee was concerned, it was a perfect day for football. The senior linebacker was returning to action for the first time in nearly a month after his left knee was sprained against Temple. And even after the Nittany Lions' 20-0 victory over the Golden Gophers, as he fielded questions in the media room, his satisfaction at being back in action was plainly evident.
What did I miss the most? he said. The fans. Being in Beaver Stadium. Playing a Big Ten team. With the snow, and this type of atmosphere, it was great.
Penn State's defense was great, too, posting its first shutout since 2007. The defense wasn't on the field very much, as Minnesota ran only 40 plays and held the ball for just 18 minutes. And Lee was on the field even less, but that was OK as far as he was concerned. He was just happy to be back.
The idea was to use Lee in the nickel defense, where he would be blitzing or dropping back into pass coverage. The coaching staff was reluctant to risk using him in situations where he would be absorbing a lot of punishment in scrums at the line of scrimmage.
I think it was just to ease me back in the game, Lee said.
He finished with two tackles, not enough to sustain a Butkus Award campaign, most likely, but enough to satisfy Joe Paterno that he was coming along well. Said the coach, He'll keep working his way in there. I think he played well when he was in.
Lee had been off to a great start after missing the 2008 season with a torn ACL. He shined against Akron and Syracuse and had amassed 12 tackles and a sack against Temple when he limped off the field in the second half.
But the knee sprain derailed his comeback. It kept him out of the team's Big Ten opener against Iowa and the two games that followed.
Lee had a lot of pent-up energy heading into his return Saturday, and he released a lot of it on his first play of the game. Entering on third-and-18 on Minnesota's first series, Lee smashed into receiver Troy Stoudermire on an overthrown pass over the middle and was flagged for a personal foul. The official told him afterward that he'd hit a defenseless receiver, thus the flag. The stadium filled with boos, and Lee was frustrated with the call.
It was 15 yards and it should have been a stop, he said. But at the same time, I was just reacting, playing football, and that's how you have to play if you want to be successful. We ended up responding to it and getting a three-and-out the next series.
Lee left the game after feeling what he described as a twinge in his knee in the fourth quarter. But he felt as though he could have kept on playing and described his departure from the game as precautionary.
Looking ahead, Lee expects to work his way back into a bigger role. He didn't say he expected to start at Michigan, but he does expect to play more than he did against the Gophers.
We're just going to take it week by week, he said. The way I felt today and through practice, [the knee] felt great, so hopefully each week I'll get more reps.
On returning this week, Lee tied Brandon Short for eighth place on the school's career tackles list with 273 stops. John Skorupan and Shane Conlan at 274 are next on the list. But individual superlatives weren't on Lee's mind after the game.
It was just great to be back on the field, he said, and not have to deal with injuries.