There will be one, very special fan in the stands Saturday night at Ryan Field. There will also be one, very grateful 'Cat out on that field facing down Penn State. The first is Army Ranger Austin McNaul, who just a week ago landed back in the States after a year on the front lines in Afghanistan. The other is senior linebacker Bryce McNaul, who has not seen his older brother in well over a year.
"I'll be focused on the game," he will say, thinking of that evening. "But as soon as it's over, the final whistle blows, I'll be thinking of seeing my brother outside the locker room."
Austin McNaul, a West Point grad, ended his tour in the war zone as second-in-command in a unit of some 130 men. Then last Friday around midnight, as his brother rested in an Iowa hotel room, he landed at his post in Fort Polk, La., and, says the 'Cat, "The whole rest of my family was down there and received him."
The brothers have managed to talk some. But, the 'Cat goes on, "He's busy as all get out. He's an officer so he's involved in the reintegration of his soldiers and all that. He'll be down there for a while. But he'll get a little bit of a block leave in November and December, so he'll be able to get up here. He's anxious to be here in Chicago and not see just me, but see our whole family."
Temporarily, at least, that will happen this weekend when Austin McNaul flies up to Chicago to watch his little brother play. "I know each and every game means a lot to him and means a lot to the rest of my family," that little brother will finally say. "My folks'll be here, my other brother will be here, and then aunts, uncles, cousins too. There'll be a lot of people."
This has not been an easy year for senior safety David Arnold. Take, for one example, his experience back at Camp Kenosha. "I had sprained my ankle," he recalls. "But that's a major time at the beginning stages of a season, that's where all that camaraderie's built, where bonds are formed. Not being a part of that is definitely one of the hardest things I've been through."
Then, for another example, he watched freshman Ibraheim Campbell earn the starting safety spot opposite Brian Peters, and finally came that broken right hand he suffered against Army. But now he is back healthy again and, since he spent this week working with the first defensive unit, indications are he will compete with Campbell for a starting role when the 'Cats meet the Nittany Lions. "I was happy just being out there, being with my friends," he would say after one of those practices.
"This is my fifth year here. It's always kind of -- it's not fun when you're just watching practice. I definitely love the game of football, so I was just excited being in the mix again."
NOT SO MUCH FUN:
Arnold, on the injury list, did not travel to Illinois for the 'Cats' Big Ten opener, which left him sitting on some couch and watching the game on TV. "Oh, man. That is terrible. It's terrible," he says when asked about that experience. "Like I said, just as much as I hate being on the sideline in practice and not getting those reps that I would like to get, it's tough watching it on the screen. Not being part of it, not being part of the game, the atmosphere is definitely challenging."
Anyone who has been paying attention knows the 'Cat defense has been hurt by explosion plays and that the reason behind them has often been a lack of communication between the defensive backs. So we wondered if that communication might be improved Saturday since Arnold is a fifth-year senior. "I do," he said. "Doogie (corner Demetrius Dugar) is new out there (as a starter). "But there's veterans out there with Peters and (corner Jordan) Mabin. We've been working together a long time, we're good friends. Jordan's my roommate. Peters has been my roommate.
"But, again, I'm just excited. We're having fun out there. . .and I just want to make plays. But most importantly, I want to help this team win."
"If we were playing like warm garbage, I'd be struggling right now," 'Cat coach Pat Fitzgerald said when asked about his team's four-game losing streak. "But we're not. We're not. We're just not making the plays winners make down the stretch in games. That's what we've got to coach the guys better to do. I watch a lot of teams as I get my chances on Thursdays and Fridays and sometimes Saturdays that are playing like garbage. We're not. We're just not playing like winners."
Fitzgerald, like most everyone, is a great admirer of 84-year old Penn State coach Joe Paterno. "He embodies all that's good in college football," is what he says. "His leadership, his player development, his success in the classroom developing great men, his success on the field is unmatched, unparalleled. He's just a tremendous role model to all of us as coaches. It's an honor to share the gridiron with him. Hopefully we'll show up and play our best game and give them a game."
The strength of the Nittany Lions is their defense, which has surrendered an average of just 11.6 points and 264.1 yards per game. It also has grabbed a Big-Ten-best 11 interceptions in seven games. "It's the top defense we've faced, top to bottom," says Fitzgerald. "They try to take your A plays away and make you play B, C, D, E and F all the way through, make you play left-handed, however you want to say it. They just play good team defense.". . . Considering the 'Cats communication problems, it is relevant to note that each of the Nittany Lions starting in the secondary is a senior. "They can probably finish the call before the call is made," Fitzgerald says of them. . . But on offense, says Fitzgerald, "They're similar to how we've played defense at times. They've been hit-and-miss.". . . Their big hitter is 5-foot-10, 209-pound sophomore tailback Silas Redd, who is averaging 100.7 rushing yards per-game. . . Expect to see both Matt McGloin and Rob Bolden under center for the Nittany Lions. The former is the more-efficient passer, the latter is the more-dangerous runner. . . Saturday will be reunion time for 'Cat returner Venric Mark and Nittany Lion punter/placekicker Anthony Fera, who played together at St. Pius X in Teaxs; and for Nittany Lion running back Joe Suhey and NU's Chance Carter, Pat Hickey and Brian Mulroe, who played together at Loyola Academy. . . The honorary captain for Saturday's game is former 'Cat and current Philadelphia Eagle quarterback Mike Kafka.
The Scribbler's favorite Joe Paterno factoid: As a senior at Brooklyn Prep in 1945, he was a talented, 145-pound, double-wing fullback on a team that lost just one game. They lost that game to St. Cecelia's of Englewood (N.J.), which was coached by a guy named Vince Lombardi.