Last updated: February 16. 2013 8:15PM - 136 Views

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THEY HAVE no chance of winning a national championship, before the season even begins.

There's no hope of going to a bowl game in their foreseeable future.

And they can't even console themselves by banking on becoming Big Ten champions.

What in the college football world do the Penn State Nittany Lions have left to play for?

"Each other," Penn State senior center Matt Stankiewitch said.

It'll be hard for Penn State players to find much motivation anywhere else but within, after brutal NCAA sanctions following the Jerry Sandusky scandal banned Penn State from playing in postseason games for the next four years. That includes not just bowls, but the newly created Big Ten championship game, as well.

It essentially kills any hope Penn State may have had of being a relevant factor in the national college football polls. While under sanctions, the Lions can't appear in the coaches top 25, which also precludes them from being ranked in the BCS standings.

"It's tough to deal with," said Lions senior fullback Michael Zordich, one of the few Penn State players to express frustration with the situation saddling his team.

Most of his teammates downplayed the significance of the sanctions they face heading into the season.

"All we want to do is play football," Lions fifth-year linebacker Michael Mauti said. "Our goal is simple. We're going to try to go out and win every single game."

An undefeated season?

That seems unlikely with Penn State facing Big Ten contenders Ohio State, Nebraska and Wisconsin along with the uncertainty of a new system under first-year head coach Bill O'Brien.

But even if the Lions do wind up their 12-game schedule with an unbeaten record, they'll head home for the year instead of to an exotic, high-profile bowl game. Or even an obscure one.

"It's not about a bowl game, not about a Big Ten championship," sophomore receiver Allen Robinson said. "There's no guarantee we would have gone to a bowl game anyway. It's about playing football.

"When you get down to it, that's why we came here anyway."

But is that enough incentive?

Somewhere along the line, players are going to start getting geared up for something bigger than playing on regular season Saturdays, especially if Penn State's record soars among the top teams in the nation.

"We're still part of the AP poll," Stankiewitch pointed out. "It's about what you personally value."

And the Lions will have to value every single snap of the regular season, because that's all they are left with to keep them playing hard.

"If you love to play football, you don't need extra motivation," Mauti scowled, "to get dressed and go play a game in front of 108,000 people. You don't need more motivation than that."

They didn't need to go through this.

Penn State players current and past had no knowledge of the sexual abuse the team's former defensive coordinator and recently convicted offender Sandusky was committing against young boys.

Some of those crimes were found to occur after Sandusky had left the football program. Yet this football team will be the first affected by NCAA punishments for it that include the loss of scholarship and will be felt by Penn State for most of this decade.

All because the Freeh Report suggested former coach Joe Paterno and a few other school leaders were part of a cover-up that hushed up Sandusky's deviancy.

It's no secret Penn State's players are being unfairly punished for it.

But they're handling the penalties with remarkable resignation and acceptance.

"There isn't any football team, I doubt, that says before the season, ‘We're going to a bowl game,' " redshirt freshman tackle Donovan Smith said.

"We're going out there to play to win. That's all we're playing for."

You wish the Nittany Lions would play the persecution card, maybe stomp around like Ohio State recently did and swear they'd try to beat the begeezes out of everyone on their schedule just to let the country know they're still around.

Instead, we get controlled reasoning like this:

"As a group," Robinson said, "we're ready to play for ourselves, play for our fans and have a good season."

Is that going to be enough reward for Penn State?

It'll have to be.

"If you like to play football," Zordich said, "winning every game is the same as a championship – without all the rings, without all the cameras, without the trips."

Without the bowls and a major spot in the polls, the driving force behind Penn State's season will have to come from an inner drive. It is derived from the type of excitement that's been happening for Penn State players since their Pee Wee football days when they first strapped on a helmet.

"I'm playing football every Saturday," Zordich said.

That will have to be enough to inspire a Penn State team as it huddles up to face the most uninspiring of times.

Paul Sokoloski is a columnist for The Times Leader. Reach him at psokoloski@timesleader.com

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