Paterno has to quickly reverse the tide for Penn State

Linebacker Nate Stupar wonders what Joe Paterno's up to.
Linebacker Nate Stupar wonders what Joe Paterno's up to.
Posted: October 22, 2010

IN THIS SEASON of discontent, it's obvious what Penn State coach Joe Paterno must do to get the struggling Nittany Lions back on track.

He needs to lighten the mood. Or crack the whip harder.

He needs to radically revise the depth chart. Or keep underperforming players in the starting lineup and let them work their way back into form.

He needs to make a commitment to a sputtering passing attack. Or an even stronger one to a lackluster running game.

It's not that JoePa hasn't already planned and schemed to a fare-thee-well. The 83-year-old legend has tried just about everything he's ever learned about football and football players during his 61 seasons in Happy Valley, the last 45 as head coach. But if there is some button that can be pushed that will instantly transform the young, battered Lions into some semblance of the strong teams Paterno has overseen in recent years, he has yet to find it.

Then again, maybe the biggest problem facing Paterno's current squad is the one he sees when he looks in the mirror. There is growing speculation that this could be the last roundup for an iconic figure who finally may be showing his age.

Believe this: Penn State (3-3, 0-2 Big Ten) almost certainly needs to win at troubled Minnesota (1-6, 0-3) tomorrow afternoon to have any chance of qualifying for even a minor bowl bid and, possibly, helping Paterno secure his 400th career victory before the clock runs out on him.

The Nits are 9 1/2-point favorites over the Golden Gophers, who have lost six straight games and will be making their debut under interim coach Jeff Horton, but Minnesota appears to offer the best opportunity for Paterno, with 397 wins, to take the next step toward No. 400, a milestone no Football Bowl Subdivision coach has reached and one almost everyone believed he would attain this season as a matter of course.

The rest of the schedule appears to offer little relief. Next week's home date with Michigan (5-2, 1-2), with the spectacular Denard Robinson at quarterback, is no gimme. Neither is a hosting of improved Northwestern (5-1, 1-1). Penn State will be a significant underdog at No. 11 Ohio State (6-1, 2-1) and in the regular-season finale at home against No. 8 Michigan State (7-0, 3-0), and even a neutral-site matchup with Indiana (4-2, 0-2), in Landover, Md., is beginning to look a bit iffy.

Could Paterno possibly step away, of his own volition or not, if the Nits were to finish, say, 5-7 and leave him stranded on the doorstep at 399?

"I hear the speculation, but I have no idea what [Paterno] is going to do," said junior linebacker Nate Stupar. "People thought he was going to quit 20 years ago. As for his not getting 400, he's set so many records thus far. I don't know if this team would take it personally [if he didn't]."

It's Paterno's former players who seemingly are most dedicated to the proposition that he should stay or leave on his schedule, not someone else's.

"He's earned the right, in my mind, to do what he's doing as long as he wants and as long as he feels that he can," said Todd Blackledge, a Penn State quarterback from 1980 to '82 and now a college football analyst for ESPN/ABC. "If he says he feels up to it and is excited about it and has the energy to do it, I say go for it.

"It's amazing, really. When he was recruiting me, people were saying stuff about his age, that he might not be there the whole time I was there. And that was 30 years ago."

But it's 2010, not 1980, and the hard fact remains that Penn State has a mere four verbal commitments for the recruiting class of 2011, only one of whom is regarded as a top-100 prospect. Paterno doesn't go on the road to close the deal with hotshot high school kids anymore; the last one he personally called upon during the recruiting process was quarterback Terrelle Pryor in 2008, and Pryor signed with Ohio State.

Coaches for rival schools are telling prospects that it really is the end of the line, or close to it, for JoePa, and apparently they're beginning to listen. It also doesn't help when Paterno himself makes statements that make it seem that he's locked in a nostalgic time warp.

Asked for his thoughts on the paralyzing injury suffered last week by Rutgers lineman Eric LeGrand, Paterno said such incidents might be reduced by removing the facemask from helmets.

3 THINGS TO LOOK FOR

* Penn State is last in the Big Ten in scoring (18.2 points per game), total offense (335.2 yards per game) and red-zone efficiency (six touchdowns in 20 opportunities). Its third-down conversion rate of 39 percent ranks 10th. Unless the Nits pitch a shutout, which isn't likely, they'd better find a way to gain 400-plus yards and make it all the way to the end zone at least three times.

* The return to reasonably good health of starting linebackers Michael Mauti and Bani Gbadyu and backup Gerald Hodges, all of whom missed the 33-13 loss to Illinois on Oct. 9, should provide a boost to a run defense that allowed the Illini to rush for 282 yards.

* Defensive ends Pete Massaro and Kevion Latham will start in place of the injured Jack Crawford and Eric Latimore, and it's imperative they put pressure off the edge on Minnesota's fine pocket passer, Adam Weber.

THIS WEEK'S GAME

Who: Penn State at Minnesota

When: Tomorrow, 12:01 p.m.

Where: TCF Bank Stadium, Minneapolis

TV: ESPNU

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

Records: Penn State (3-3, 0-2 Big Ten), Minnesota (1-6, 0-3)

History: The Nittany Lions lead the series, 7-4, including a 20-0 shutout victory last year in Beaver Stadium.

Coaches: Joe Paterno (45th year at school, 397-132-3), Jeff Horton (first year at school, 0-0; sixth year overall, 20-48)

About Penn State: Junior strong safety Drew Astorino has been moved to free safety to fill in for Nick Sukay, who was lost for the season with a torn pectoral muscle in last week's 33-13 loss to Illinois . . . In another personnel switch, junior wide receiver Chaz Powell has returned to cornerback to replenish a depleted secondary. Powell had only three receptions for 11 yards . . . Senior tailback Evan Royster is just 93 yards away from breaking Curt Warner's school career rushing record of 3,398, but his road to the top spot has been rutted. Royster has run for only 388 yards on 78 carries this season, but his 64.7 yards per game average drops to just 40.2 if you subtract his career-high 187-yard day against Temple . . . Senior placekicker Collin Wagner has hit 13 of 15 field goals and his average of 2.17 field goals per game is tied for second nationally.

About Minnesota: Don't be surprised if elusive sophomore MarQueise Gray, a big-play wide receiver now (26 catches for 349 yards and two touchdowns) but the Golden Gophers' backup quarterback last season, takes some snaps out of the Wildcat formation. Interim coach Jeff Horton has dropped hints he'll unveil some new wrinkles against the Nits . . . Fifth-year senior Adam Weber has 9,900 career passing yards (1,662 this season) and is on the verge of becoming the fifth Big Ten quarterback with 10,000. He would join Purdue's Drew Brees and Curtis Painter, Northwestern's Brett Basanez and Iowa's Chuck Long. The only pass thrown by a Minnesota player other than Weber was a tailback option by Duane Bennett . . . Backup defensive tackle Ra'shede Hageman, a redshirt freshman, has been suspended for an unspecified violation of team rules.

PREDICTION

Penn State 34, Minnesota 23

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