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GOULD: New coach O’Brien has Penn State football going for sixth straight win

FILE - In this Sept. 15 2012 file phoPenn State head coach Bill O'Brien leads his team onfield Beaver Stadium

FILE - In this Sept. 15, 2012, file photo, Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien leads his team onto the field at Beaver Stadium for an NCAA college football game against Navy in State College, Pa. Guided by a new coach instilling a fearless attitude, the team has won five straight headed into a high-stakes game Saturday night against unbeaten No. 9 Ohio State. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)

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Updated: November 27, 2012 10:41AM

A year ago, I was standing on the sidelines at Penn State when Illinois kicker Derek Dimke, the target of snowballs, missed a last-second field goal, preserving Penn State’s 10-7 victory over Illinois.

It was a rare snowy Oct. 29 in central Pennsylvania. It was also the end of an era. The victory was the 409th and last for Joe Paterno, who moved one win ahead of Grambling legend Eddie Robinson for most victories by a Division I coach.

A week later, Jerry Sandusky was indicted for child molesting. A few days after that, Paterno was fired.

Now, one year later, Sandusky is in prison and Paterno is dead. But Penn State football, which was supposed to be buried under NCAA sanctions, is, all things considered, doing just fine so far.

An NCAA ruling that allowed about a dozen Nittany Lions, including star tailback Silas Redd, to transfer without penalty has hurt. A four-year bowl ban and a major scholarship reduction figure to hurt more as time goes on.

But Penn State found a winner to guide it through this troubled time. The job Bill O’Brien is doing is nothing short of incredible. He won’t win coach of the year with a bowl-banned team, but maybe he should.

If not for a pair of nail-biting defeats vs. Ohio and Virginia at the start of the season, Penn State’s meeting with No. 9 Ohio State on Saturday would be a matchup of unbeatens.

With the Buckeyes also serving an NCAA penance, this is the first time in decades a Penn State/Ohio State clash had absolutely no bowl implications. But with no postseason looming, this Ball & Chain Bowl could be an intense matchup.

How Penn State, which has won five straight, has remained unranked, only the voters know.

Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer knows Ohio State could have its hands full, particularly if quarterback Braxton Miller, who’s been cleared to play after an initially scary neck injury last week, is limited.

‘‘I have great respect for Coach O’Brien. Obviously, he’s doing a great job,’’ Meyer said. ‘‘I know there’s some tough sanctions against them. But Penn State has great football players. They’re very well coached. I made that clear to our team. It’s going to be a good draft day for the Penn State Nittany Lions.’’

No question, Penn State still has some talent. But O’Brien, 43, in his first head coaching stint, not only has plugged big holes at skill positions. He also has restored the Nittany Lions’ pride.

“The job Bill O’Brien is doing is phenomenal,’’ ESPN analyst Rece Davis told me this week. “He’s doing it the old-fashioned way, [without] any big magic gimmicks. They tackle well, they block well. They’re not explosive, so they execute.’’

Don’t underestimate the emotional healing O’Brien has overseen, either.

“They have guys playing for a cause,’’ Davis said, ‘‘to show that they aren’t part of the atrocities that happened there. That’s a powerful thing, when you have guys playing with that type of purpose.’’

It’s also a tribute to O’Brien. A year ago, when O’Brien was the relatively obscure offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots. Nittany Lions’ fans loved speculation that Penn State would make a run at Meyer.

Today, though, Meyer over O’Brien is not nearly as easy a call.

“Urban Meyer’s a great coach, and he’s proven. He gets it done,’’ said Nittany Lions running back Michael Zordich, an Ohioan. “But we have coach O’Brien here now, and we’re very happy with him.’’

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