Penn State gearing for 'learning experience' at Alabama

Penn State must contain talented running back Trent Richardson.
Penn State must contain talented running back Trent Richardson.
Posted: September 10, 2010

A hypothetical question for Nittany Nation: Is it better to beat up on an Alabama team that's down, or to risk getting hammered on the road by a Crimson Tide outfit that might be the strongest in the country?

If the No. 18 Nittany Lions (1-0) leave Tuscaloosa tomorrow night after upsetting defending national champion and top-ranked Alabama (1-0), the answer will be obvious. But if coach Nick Saban's Tide swamps the youngest group of Lions that Joe Paterno has helmed in recent memory, is the "learning experience" worth the bruises and bitter dose of reality those kids will take back with them to Happy Valley?

"One of the advantages of playing a team as good as Alabama early in the year is that we'll learn from it," Paterno said. "I don't know how we're going to handle it. I hope we go down there and we realize it's one of those opportunities you only get so many of in a college career, so go down and enjoy it.

"Understand, you're playing against one of the best college teams we've ever played against. But just do what you can do, do it as well as you can do it, and try to learn. I think we will learn from it. Now, that doesn't mean a miracle's going to happen. But we'll be a better team for having played the game."

It's not exactly a pregame concession speech, but it doesn't exactly sound as if JoePa is oozing confidence, either. He knows what he and his kids are up against, what with 100,000-plus very vocal crimson-clad fans in Bryant-Denny Stadium and 11 extremely capable and battle-tested, crimson-clad players on the field at any given moment.

For what it's worth, this matchup wasn't supposed to happen - not now, anyway. It originally was scheduled for years earlier, then rescheduled for years later. Only an involved set of circumstances came together in such a manner for Penn State to be pitted against this loaded Alabama team on this date, with a return engagement in Beaver Stadium set for Sept. 10, 2011.

Penn State and Alabama - the Tide leads the series, 8-5 - were supposed to meet in 2004 and 2005, but those games were pushed back at Alabama's request in 2003. 'Bama athletic director Mal Moore was concerned that his team at that time was not competitive enough to play such high-visibility, non-conference games in addition to the killer Southeastern Conference gantlet it had to run, and maybe that feeling was legitimate. In May 2003, Mike Price (who never actually coached a game for the Tide) was fired after an embarrassing incident at a Florida strip club and was replaced by Mike Shula, son of the legendary Baltimore Colts and Miami Dolphins coach.

A 2001 NCAA probation prevented Alabama from having full recruiting classes until after the 2004 season, and Shula's teams went 4-9 in 2003 and 6-6 in '04.

Penn State wasn't exactly in high clover at the time. Paterno's 2004 squad went 4-7, the Nits' fourth losing season in 5 years, but closing victories over Indiana and Michigan State offered hope for better days ahead. The 2005 team rebounded better than anyone had a reasonable right to expect, going 11-1 and finishing third in the national polls. For what it's worth, Alabama also came back in a big way in '05, going 10-2.

Paterno remembers his feeling when Alabama asked out of the 2004 and '05 games.

"I was involved in it," JoePa said. "Mal Moore called. They had just lost 15 or 16 players because of some kind of NCAA violation. He frankly said, 'Our program's down. Can we postpone this series for a couple of years so we can get back to where we think we should be?' I said, 'OK with me, but you have to talk it out with Tim Curley, our athletic director.' What went on with Tim and Mal, I don't know, but it appears Tim was receptive to that."

Interestingly, the postponement called for the two-game series to be pushed back to 2013 and '14, but the schools agreed to play earlier when their schedules for this year and next became a bit more flexible.

Makes you wonder, though. What would have happened had Curley gone to Moore before this season and said, "Hey, Mal, we don't have a quarterback with any appreciable game experience. All our starting linebackers left at the same time. Our offensive line is in transition, and we have really tough Big Ten road games at Iowa and Ohio State. Going down to your place now would really pose a hardship on us. Could we move our series back a couple of years, like we originally agreed?''

3 THINGS TO LOOK FOR

1. It's a night game, and Labor Day is past. Still, it's the Deep South and early enough in the season for enough heat and humidity to make weather a factor in favor of the Crimson Tide.

"We had a pretty warm summer [in State College], even by my standards,'' said Penn State linebacker Mike Mauti, from Mandeville, La. "It got up to 95 a couple a days. But that humidity definitely will be a factor. We're taking that into consideration, and we'll be keeping on top of our hydration.''

2. Penn State hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher since Iowa's Shonn Greene went off for 117 yards on 28 carries on Nov. 8, 2008. The Nits will be out to extend that streak to 18 games, but keeping Trent Richardson in check might not be that easy.

"We're aware of [the streak],'' said defensive tackle Ollie Ogbu. "[Defensive line] coach [Larry] Johnson gives us about 10 goals for each game, and no 100-yard rusher is No. 1 all the time. It's a pride thing.''

3. The flip side of the 100-yard-rusher thing is that it would be really nice if Nits tailback Evan Royster, who had just 40 yards on 11 carries last week against Youngstown State, found enough creases to hit triple digits on the run-resistant Tide.

PREDICTION

Alabama 31, Penn State 14.

AGENDA

Who: No. 18 Penn State (1-0) at No. 1 Alabama (1-0)

When: Tomorrow, 7 p.m.

Where: Bryant-Denny Stadium, Tuscaloosa, Ala.

TV: ESPN

Radio: WNTP (990-AM); WPNV (1440-AM)

History: The Crimson Tide leads the series, 8-5, although the Nittany Lions won the most recent meeting, in 1990, 9-0, in Tuscaloosa.

Coaches: Joe Paterno (45th season, 395-129-3); Nick Saban (fourth season at school; 29-8; 15th season overall, 120-50-1)

Penn State update: The Nits are 14-14 against Southeastern Conference teams since Joe Paterno became head coach in 1966, The SEC is the only conference against which JoePa has won less than 63 percent of his games, although he is 7-3 against the SEC in bowl games ... The Big Ten team that most reminds cornerback D'Anton Lynn of Alabama is Iowa. "They're similar," he said. "They don't have a fancy offense. They keep it pretty basic" ... That "hostile" environment the Nits will be facing? Maybe it won't be quite that unhospitable. "The people at Alabama love Penn State," says former PSU quarterback Todd Blackledge, now an ESPN analyst. "They love Joe and they love that rivalry. There's a real connection with Joe that the people of Alabama feel with [former Tide coach] Bear Bryant. There was obviously a lot of mutual respect between them."

Alabama update: Might be a tough night for Penn State tailback Evan Royster. Alabama hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher in 35 games, the last being Ole Miss' BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who gained 131 yards on Oct. 13, 2007 ... The Tide is 25-6 in games when it was ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll ... Alabama has intercepted at least one pass in 12 consecutive games ... In addition to the unavailability of defensive end Marcell Dareus and the likely unavailability of Heisman Trophy-winning running back Mark Ingram (knee), standout linebacker Courtney Upshaw (ankle) is expected to be limited.

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