Penn State is not a terrible football team.

The Nittany Lions may not be thriving, but they're at least surviving.

Given what has happened over the past two years, that should be counted as a triumph.

Since the Jerry Sandusky earthquake hit on Nov. 5, 2011, the PSU football program has endured one aftershock after another.

---Joe Paterno is fired and subsequently dies, and a once-pristine image is forever tarnished.

---Three high-level administrators face criminal charges for an alleged criminal cover-up of complaints about Sandusky.

---Sandusky, PSU's longtime defensive coordinator, is convicted of multiple child sex abuse charges and will likely spend the rest of his life in jail.

---The Freeh Report blasts the school's handling of the Sandusky allegations.

---The NCAA slams Penn State with unprecedented, some say crippling, sanctions.

Those are just the lowlights, of course. They all occurred within the first nine months after the scandal first broke.

Since then, the aftershocks have subsided, but the damage done to the football program remains.

In the summer of 2012, after the NCAA sanctions were handed down, many believed that PSU's football program was doomed to a decade, or maybe more, of football purgatory.

It was believed that the scholarship limitations and postseason bans alone would leave Penn State with a roster better suited to compete in the Big South, rather than Big Ten.


Plus there was untold damage done to the program's reputation.

It seemed like the school was in a hole so deep that it might swallow the football program whole.

Somehow, however, the Lions have managed to avoid the most dire of the predictions.

Penn State, against all odds, is still a competitive Big Ten football program.

Last year, thanks largely to a senior class that was blessed with exceptional leaders, they posted a stunning 8-4 overall record, including a 6-2 mark in the Big Ten.

This year, without those senior leaders, the program has taken a small step backward. But the Lions are still 5-3 overall and 2-2 in the conference. Another winning season, while certainly not guaranteed, is very possible.

That's pretty remarkable considering the team's lack of depth and play-making talent, especially on the defensive side of the football. Plus they're starting a true freshman at quarterback.

Much of the credit for that success has to go to the man who replaced Paterno -- Bill O'Brien. His hiring may be the single-best decision that Penn State has made during this whole sordid affair.

O'Brien, of course, is not perfect. (Hey coach, would it kill you to run the ball a little more?) But he seems to be the best man for this very difficult position.

His job was recently made easier by the NCAA's decision to soften the scholarship sanctions. That was a reward for Penn State's efforts to institute the recommendations of the Freeh Report. The other sanctions, including the postseason ban, remain in place, but there's speculation they could also be eased over the next year.

Even if the other penalties are lessened, however, it would be unrealistic to expect Penn State to become a power player in the Big Ten for at least a few more years. The damage done to the program is just too great.

And it may be a decade, or more, before PSU again becomes a national power.

But, as long as O'Brien stays on board, the Lions should continue to be competitive.

Not great, but not terrible, either.

That may not sound like much, but considering what's happened over the last two years, it's a major accomplishment.

After all, when an earthquake hits, survival is the first order of business.

Steve Heiser is sports editor of The York Dispatch.