Penn State University's football team kicked off its final home football game of the year Saturday under a heavy police presence, days after the firing of its revered coach following a child sex abuse scandal.

On a crisp, sunny autumn day, police monitored roads and patrolled the area from the air. Fans wearing blue -- the colour associated with a stop child abuse campaign -- watched as their Nittany Lions team and opponents the University of Nebraska gathered at mid-field to pray together for all those who have suffered from child abuse.

It is the first game in more than four decades in which Penn State will not be led by Joe Paterno, who has a record 409 victories under his belt since 1966 and is one of the most respected coaches in U.S. college football.

Penn State interim head coach Tom Bradley, who said he had a flood of emotions going through his mind, gave a message to his team in an interview with the ESPN television network: Go out and represent Penn State in a proper manner.

Police, fans and university official were hoping to avoid a repeat of the mob violence that erupted Wednesday evening after university trustees fired Paterno, 84, and college president Graham Spanier.

Along with Paterno, assistant coach Mike McQueary is also absent after being put on paid administrative leave Friday.

McQueary has testified to a grand jury that he saw former assistant coach Gerald Jerry Sandusky rape a boy in the showers at a campus locker room in 2002 and said he reported what he saw to Paterno.

The university had earlier barred him from attending Saturday's game, citing multiple threats against him.

Paterno said he was told that Sandusky engaged in sexually inappropriate behaviour with a young boy. He told his boss but did not call the police.

Sandusky, 67, ran the Second Mile charity program for at-risk children and retained access to Penn State facilities after his retirement in 1999. Prosecutors said he met all his alleged victims through the nonprofit group, which says it cut ties with him in 2008.

He was charged on November 5 with sexually abusing eight young boys over more than a decade. Former Penn State athletic director Tim Curley and former finance official Gary Schultz, were charged with failing to report an incident.

Sandusky, Curley and Schultz have all denied the charges.

TAILGATE PARTIES

Despite heavy security and signs outside the stadium saying police had found nothing after investigating an anonymous bomb threat at the stadium Friday night, the campus of 45,000 students in central Pennsylvania was exuberant with marching bands, cheering fans and tailgate parties.

Scott Doht, of Lyons, Nebraska, said he would be rooting for his home team and was looking forward to the game.

They've been very welcoming to us, said Doht, who flew in for the game. It means a lot to us. We feel like it's a good rivalry and we look forward to hosting them next year.

Jeff Beitinger, 34, of Sinking Spring, Pennsylvania, said the game is the first step towards healing the Penn State community and supporting the team.

Late Friday night, instead of the usual pregame rally, an estimated 10,000 students conducted an emotional candlelight vigil in front of the main administration building for the young boys who were victims of alleged sex abuse.

Sandusky was once considered a likely successor to Paterno.

Paterno has not been charged but one of his sons confirmed that his father had hired J. Sedgwick Wick Sollers, a prominent Washington criminal defence lawyer.

The scandal reverberated as far as Wall Street when ratings agency Moody's warned Friday of a possible credit downgrade for Penn State.

The agency said the scandal could lead to lawsuits and settlements, weaker student demand, declines in philanthropic giving, and significant management or governance changes.

Penn State's board of trustees Friday appointed Kenneth Frazier, the chief executive of drugmaker Merck & Co. and a Penn State alumnus, to head a special committee to investigate the events that lead up to the charges against Sandusky.

(Writing by Patricia Reaney; Editing by Sandra Maler)