We would hear it almost every year from Joe Paterno, it seemed, as football season turned into another football season.
Donovan Smith (foreground) and Bill Belton (background) were two of six first-time starters for Penn State against Ohio.
"This is a young team," Penn State's longtime coach would say, and you never quite knew if he was saying so because he was trying to temper expectations for his team or because, when you're in your 80s, 22-year-old seniors seem just as young to you as 19-year-old redshirt freshmen. Either way, some fans got tired of hearing it, believing it was a convenient excuse Paterno could use after his team fell at Iowa or Wisconsin or Ohio State.
So there we were on Tuesday, one week into Bill O'Brien's first season, and Penn State's new coach was saying: "We have in many areas of our football team a young football team."
Except O'Brien is right.
Some of those "young" Paterno teams were a little green at some positions, to be sure, but most had at least a few seasoned veterans on both sides of the ball. The 2012 squad that debuted last week against Ohio, thanks to losses caused by graduation, transfer, injury and too many trips to the doghouse, was greener than the Bobcats' helmets.
Penn State's offense lined up two returning starters, quarterback Matt McGloin and center Matt Stankiewitch. Four offensive players -- Donovan Smith, Miles Dieffenbach, Bill Belton and John Urschel -- were making their first career starts. Of the five other starters, only tight end Garry Gilliam had more than two career starts to his name prior to Saturday (three), and his last had come in October 2010.
Defensively, Penn State was more experienced, but not substantially. Defensive linemen Deion Barnes and DaQuan Jones were making their debuts as starters, and cornerback Adrian Amos was making his second career start. Punter Alex Butterworth was back in the starting lineup for the first time since the end of the 2010 season, when he started three games, and kicker Sam Ficken played his first game as the full-time guy.
Smith, Barnes and tight end Kyle Carter, who did not start but saw significant game action, tight end Jesse James, linebacker Nyeem Wartman, defensive lineman Anthony Zettel and cornerback DaQuan Davis, all of whom saw playing time with the starting unit throughout the game, were all playing in a college game for the first time.
This is one of the youngest teams in recent Penn State history, and certainly one of the youngest offenses. But it is one game older, and the difference between those young players at the start of the game and at its conclusion might have been the main positive to draw from what was overwhelmingly a dismal start for the Nittany Lions.
When Penn State heads to Virginia on Saturday, those first-game butterflies won't be as big or as numerous for those young players. The speed of the game will seem more manageable. There will be fewer things both between and surrounding the sidelines that will surprise them.
"I think that was a lot of it for a lot of the guys on Saturday," said senior fullback Michael Zordich, who was playing in his 39th career game but making just his third career start. "Learning how to deal with the crowd and the momentum shifts and the ins and outs of the football game."
Another senior, right tackle Mike Farrell, made his second career start against Ohio. This week, he paused to remember his first few plays as a college lineman. Most of them came in the fourth quarter, when the game had already been decided.
"It had to be a real challenge for a guy who went out and got his first plays at kickoff and not the fourth quarter when the game was in hand," Farrell said. "I'm sure it had to be even more of a challenge for those guys, and they did perform well, but I think it'll only help them to get that game under their belt."
Penn State didn't need to look far to see the differences between an inexperienced team and a veteran team Saturday. The Bobcats started 10 seniors and just two players who weren't upperclassmen. They made fewer mistakes than the Nittany Lions all afternoon and outplayed them at every turn in the second half.
Thanks to the sanctions, there are going to be a lot of new starters on opening day during the next few years. As this season goes on, though, the comfort level of those younger players should increase. The number of silly penalties and missed assignments should gradually decrease. Penn State's young players aren't going to grow up overnight, but the only place they can truly grow is the field on game days.
The good news for O'Brien is that those players showed a lot of promise and potential their first time out. The challenge facing the coach, and those players, is turning that potential into consistent and positive results. The sooner the better.