NEWS

College Football Nation: Paterno, Penn St. roaring back

Eric Avidon

The old Lion is roaring.

It’s been a long time since he’s been relevant, since he’s shown his power. There was a surprise run in 2005 when the Lion -- Joe Paterno -- and his team came out of nowhere to go 11-1 and end the season ranked third, but it was an 11 wins that included just one over a top-10 opponent, and the loss was to an unranked team.

Before that were two losing seasons. Each of the last two years have been mediocre 9-4 records.

Penn State is 5-0. As teams across the nation lost in inexplicable fashion last weekend, the Nittany Lions benefited. Suddenly they’re ranked No. 6 in both the AP and ESPN/USA Today polls. Suddenly, with all the teams ranked above them forced to play at least one of the others as the season progresses, Penn State is in position to do something special.

“I just say we’ve got Purdue this week,” Paterno said at his weekly press conference on Tuesday. “If we don’t pay attention to what’s right in front of you, then all that stuff down the road isn’t going to happen.”

Ironically, with the seemingly rigid old Lion as the leader, Penn State gotten to this point where there’s the potential for a special season by evolving.

There have been many calls for Paterno to retire since his last real chance at a national championship blew up in his face in 1999. His team was loaded with talent then, with Courtney Brown and LaVarr Arrington leading a ferocious defense. They were unbeaten through nine games and the top-ranked team in the country. Then everything fell apart and Penn State finished 10-3, losing its last three Big Ten games before winning the Alamo Bowl.

Four of the next five years were losing seasons.

The game had seemingly passed Paterno by. Florida State’s Bobbly Bowden passed him by for most career wins, though Paterno has since reclaimed that record. Disciplinary issues that had never been part of the past became part of the present. It seemed Paterno was doing more harm than good, that his presence was keeping Penn State from moving forward.

It may turn out that way this season as well, that the Nittany Lions are just another nine-win team, and the disciplinary issues keep cropping up.

But the present Penn State on the field is very different than the Penn State of the past. The conservative offense that rode the running of Curt Warner and Blair Thomas and Ki-Jana Carter -- and long ago the likes of John Cappelletti -- is gone. Penn State, the most conservative uniform in all of college football, coached by the most conservative looking man in all of college sports, runs the spread.

They ran a version of the wide open offense in 2005 when Michael Robinson was the quarterback, and after returning to a more traditional attack the last two seasons, they’re running an offense they’re calling the Spread HD.

“It’s beyond spread,” quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno said in the preseason, according to Penn State’s campus newspaper, The Collegian. “It’s a high-definition NFL passing game with the spread offense. It’s really a glorified wishbone offense.”

The Nittany Lions have lit up their five opponents.

They’re gaining an average of 515 yards per game, and their scoring average of 49.8 points per game is fourth in the nation. Evan Royster is averaging over 100 yards per game on the ground, and quarterback Daryll Clark is ranked 11th in passing efficiency.

But as the Lion roars, there remains an elephant in the room.

Is all this a mirage? Three of the teams Penn State beat up are Coastal Carolina, Syracuse and Temple. But the Nittany Lions did whip the same Oregon State team that just upset USC, and last Saturday night they beat legitimately good Illinois 38-24.

“I have been saying all along that I wouldn't know how good we were until we got into a tough football game, one with a little back and forth to it and that we couldn’t do everything we wanted to,” Paterno said in his postgame press conference last Saturday. “And, today, we had that kind of ball game. That is as important as the record because I think we can now play with a little more assurance.”

Still, the real answers will come later. On Oct. 11, Penn State has to play at Wisconsin. Two weeks later, the Nittany Lions host Ohio State. Michigan State looms at the end of the season.

Even this week is no pushover. Penn State -- with that trip to Wisconsin potentially distracting focus -- is at Purdue. The Boilermakers are just 2-2, but with a home crowd and the motivation of knowing they’re in coach Joe Tiller’s final season, they could lay the classic trap for the Nittany Lions.

“I think if you’re good and you’re prepared and your kids have their heads on straight, if you’re good enough, you win,” Paterno said. “If you’re not good enough, you don’t win.”

The urge is to suddenly say Penn State is the class of the Big Ten. After Ohio State was whipped by USC and Wisconsin suffered a humiliating defeat in Ann Arbor last Saturday, it’s the Nittany Lions who look like the team to beat in the conference. While they’re now the one Big Ten team left that has a chance to play for the national championship, it’s irresponsible to dismiss Wisconsin and especially Ohio State.

Beyond that, one season of success is no indication of a return to long-term national relevance. Penn State was one and done in 2005, and even if the Nittany Lions become a fixture in the top 10 this season there’s no guarantee that they’ll be back there next year. There’s the possibility that Paterno still is the coach he once was, and there’s also the possibility that his presence holds Penn State back -- the Nittany Lions have just one Big Ten title since joining the conference in 1993, and just this past year were dismissed by Terrelle Pryor, the top recruit in the entire country and a Pennsylvania native.

But as the calendar turns from September to October, as the leaves change, the old Lion is roaring.

What We Learned

Conference play is simply a different animal.

There’s something about playing a team year in and year out that nullifies intimidation. Oregon State should have been terrified to face USC. Mississippi should have been terrified to travel to Florida. Michigan -- at least this year -- should have been terrified of Wisconsin. Even Alabama, which was a mere 7-6 last year, should have been terrified to travel to Athens, Ga., and the face the blackout at Sanford Stadium.

None were scared in the slightest, and so four top-10 teams were beaten.

“We had 68 snaps on defense, and eight of those plays were plays we felt could change the outcome of the game if we had them back,” Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said Monday. “It seems like a small number, but one thing we really strive to enforce everybody’s mind, is that in the Big Ten every play counts. ... Every play counts, and you never know when that one play is going to have a huge effect on the game.”

It’s tempting to give the past weekend some pithy nickname, call it something like Shakedown Saturday or Upset Weekend after previously undefeated teams that looked like conference and national title contenders lost to inferior opponents. But in truth, it was Spit the Bit Saturday -- or Weekend, given that USC lost to Oregon State last Thursday night.

Even if they were conference games against unintimidated opposition, with the exception of Georgia’s to a clearly brilliant Alabama team, there’s still no excuse for those losses.

Southern Cal, Wisconsin, Florida -- throw in Wake Forest, which lost to nonconference foe Navy -- suffered inexplicable upsets. They all were beaten by teams that had no business being within three touchdowns. They didn’t just lose football games, they screwed up.

Yes, last weekend showed the conference play is a great equalizer. It also showed that USC, Florida and Wisconsin are undeserving of the praise that was heaped upon them through much of the first month of the season.

They let down.

“We didn’t feel like we played great defense,” Florida coach Urban Meyer said Monday. “We ... let them throw for 300. It was not a great day on defense.”

He added, “I would anticipate that our team will be ready to go this week. We’ll have a good week of practice.”

Game of the Week

There is no brilliant matchup this weekend. There is no elimination game like last Saturday night’s matchup between Alabama and Georgia or next Saturday’s Red River Shootout between Texas and Oklahoma. There are decent games like Auburn at Vanderbilt and Ohio State at Wisconsin, and there’s Florida State at Miami, which is always interesting from a rivalry standpoint but hasn’t had national significance in a few years. That makes this is a weekend during which top teams simply have to survive, during which they have to avoid the missteps taken by USC, Florida, Wisconsin and Wake Forest last weekend.

Missouri at Nebraska is one game like that. Pitt at South Florida is another. But the game to watch is Texas at Colorado.

The Longhorns are up to No. 5 in the national polls, but at 4-0 haven’t played a particularly tough schedule. Next Saturday they play the most important game of their regular season when they travel to Dallas and their annual matchup with No. 1 Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl. The winner of that one will seemingly have the inside track on the Big 12 South title.

After that Texas hosts No. 4 Missouri, No. 21 Oklahoma State and is at No. 7 Texas Tech.

Is Colorado laying a trap in Boulder?

“It’s hard to win,” Texas quarterback Colt McCoy said on Monday. “(Last week’s upsets) show that every week you have to be prepared. ... We have to be prepared every week. That’s why our focus is completely on Colorado right now and playing good football.”

The Buffaloes are 3-1, including a win over West Virginia. The loss came at Florida State. They’re not in Texas’ class, but neither was Oregon State in USC’s class, or Mississippi in Florida’s.

“Colorado has only one loss, and they were down 24-0 to Oklahoma and upset them last year on this same weekend in Boulder,” Texas coach Mack Brown said at his weekly press conference. “They are doing a good job. They have good players and they are well coached. I think it’s a good test for us this weekend.”

For any of those next four games against ranked opponents to have national title significance, Texas first has to avoid getting trapped in Boulder.

If I Had a Ballot ...

1. Oklahoma (4-0): A 25-point win over TCU somewhat legitimized the Sooners. Next week’s Texas game will be the real bellwether.

2. Alabama (5-0): Like him or hate him, what Nick Saban has done is stunning.

3. LSU (4-0): After a week off, the Tigers are at Florida next week in what should be a thriller.

4. Missouri (4-0): Is the defense good enough to survive a three-week run made up of Nebraska, Oklahoma State and Texas?

5. Texas (4-0): The Longhorns are here by default. If they’re still in the top 5 in a month it will be because they beat teams like Oklahoma and Missouri.

6. Penn State (5-0): Solid win over Illinois.

7. BYU (4-0): The Cougars should win the next two, then are at TCU in what has the potential to be a great ballgame.

8. USC (2-1): A terrible, terrible loss at Oregon State. Unless every team from the SEC and Big 12 wind up with two losses, the Trojans are gone from the national title race.

9. Georgia (3-1): The Bulldogs must now avoid the dreaded hangover and not let one loss bleed into another.

10. Texas Tech (4-0): The schedule is backloaded, so the Red Raiders have a good shot at 7-0 before Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma make late October and November really tough.

Eric Avidon can be reached at eavidon@cnc.com.