Penn State Football: Can Joe Androcles Save the Lions vs. Michigan?
UNIVERSITY PARK — Joe Paterno is earning his $1,037,322 this week. And probably loving it. The work. Not the money.
This is the week that the Nittany Lion coaching staff will truly make a difference. (And the scenario will be repeated in two weeks when Ohio State comes to campus.)
Not that the coaches didn’t make a difference against Syracuse, Minnesota or Illinois, moreso vs. the latter. A clever defensive scheme, well-executed, kept Juice Williams at bay while a plethora of offensive machinations resulted in a 16-minute outburst that delivered 21 points. But perhaps the greatest difference against those foes came on the recruiting trail — Penn State’s starting 22 were, as a whole, definitely better athletes in each contest.
And, sure, the coaches made a difference against Akron, Temple and Eastern Illinois. But let’s not kid ourselves. The coaches were tinkering and testing and, ultimately, reigning in the players. The score may not have been as lopsided, but Penn State would have won these three games if the coaches were you (defensive coordinator) and I (offensive coordinator, relying on my hall of fame years as a single-bar wishbone QB in midget, junior high and JV football).
Don’t get me wrong about all this coaching stuff. My dad coached high school for more than three decades at five schools in the Harrisburg-Lebanon area. Loved it so much it literally killed him; he died of a heart attack in the locker room after losing a nail biter against archrival Hershey. So I believe in the power of the X’s and O’s.
But, as Paterno himself likes to say, what really matters when the teams hit the field are the Jimmys and Joes. The players.
That’s why when the Nittany Lions stood toe-to-toe with every team it has beaten thus far in 2009, they knew they were good enough to shoulda, coulda, woulda, dida win the game.
It was more Joe Suhey than Joe Paterno. More Stephon, Stephfon, Stephen (both of them) and Stefen than Tom (Bradley), Dick (Anderson) or Larry (Johnson).
As Paterno himself said on Tuesday, Michigan “is going to be tough, but nobody said it was always going to be easy. We've been fortunate -- the only tough game we’ve been in we’ve lost.”
That would be Iowa. Iowa was different.
Against Iowa, a disappointing 21-10 loss, the Nittany Lion coaches certainly had a hand in the defeat. Yes, there were four turnovers, four penalties, a safety and a blocked punt that played into the loss. Player mistakes.
But, if you recall, Penn State was up 10-0 after the first quarter and 10-5 at halftime, despite minus six yards in the second quarter. Clearly, Jimmy Nittany and Joey Lion had the talent to beat Iowa. They led for 32 minutes and 39 seconds of that game. You gotta be able to keep a lead, despite the mistakes.
They were only down 11-10 after Iowa blocked that punt and returned it for a touchdown in the fourth quarter. One point. Can’t get any closer. You gotta be able to come back from one point behind, despite the mistakes. The players have to rally and the coaches have to help them. Lead them. Tell them how.
My theory is this: It was too easy early against Iowa, and everyone on the Penn State side underestimated Iowa’s ability to play Penn State football better than Penn State.
In tight games, when decisions are split second and a unifying force -- a singular voice to rally the troops -- is imperative, this is where games are won against teams of equal or even better ability.
Michigan is an uneven bag of tricks, from their head coach Rich Rodriguez to their multiple-headed quarterback to an attacking defense orchestrated by deposed and bespotted former Syracuse head coach Greg Robinson, an ex-Denver Bronco D-coordinator and the architect of the revamped and revised Wolverine defense after he stunk up the joint (10-37) at Syracuse.
Throw in the Big House, and the fact that Penn State has lost its last five (not a typo) games at Michigan, and you have the makings of a matchup where either team could conceivably win.
Now here’s the thing, Part I -- Penn State has lost the last three games on the road at Michigan by 3, 2 and 5 points. Sure, there have been overtime losses, disputed catches and ill-conceived kickoffs (for which Paterno took the blame on Tuesday). But the point remains -- when the going gets tough vs. the Wolverines, the Wolverines get the win. Paterno said he thinks it is the Jimmys and the Joes.
“I think we’ve played good, competitive football the times we’ve been there; they were just better than we were,” Paterno said on Tuesday. “I don’t think it’s particularly a tough place to play if you're ready to go and you’ve got some kids that look forward to playing in places where there are 100,000 people there to watch you. “
Now here’s the thing, Part II – When the games are that close, where every play can mean the game, this is where the Nittany Lions should be playing the Paterno card – in addition to the Galen card and the Scrap card. The Big Guy’s won almost 400 games, has been in the Big Ten longer than any other coach and is a tremendously smart individual. So shouldn’t he be the wild card, in preparations, in game planning, in on-the-field decision-making?
Clearly, he relishes the opportunity.
“We know it’s going to be a 60-minute football game,” Paterno said. And he’s right -- for the players and the coaching staff.
Paterno’s voice rose and his cadence quickened when he talked about preparing for Michigan before the assembled media in Beaver Stadium on Tuesday. This week is real coaching for the Nittany Lions, the reason Joe has stayed in the profession for 60 years. The reason the Vanderlinens and the Johnsons and the McQuearys get home at 10 and are back in the office at 7.
This week is the adrenaline rush -- what does that do to an 82-year-old body, anyway? -- Joe gets in devising game plans, devil advocating his coaches, in getting to know No. 5 and No. 16, the Michigan quarterbacks, much more intimately than he did the signal-callers for Akron or Temple.
Here’s what he has to say -- excitedly -- about the Michigan defense:
“Our tackles are going to have one tough job, not only with him (Brandon Graham), but with the linebackers plugging and the corners coming and you got the strong safety coming…we’ve got our hands full and (Graham) is one of the people that will be a problem for us.
Later, Paterno added: “I’ll tell you, when you make big plays on them you’ve got to be awfully precise because they’re coming…they’re coming. And we know they're going to be coming after us, and we've got a tough week ahead of us, because there are a lot of different things they do, a lot of change ups, a lot of blitzing by corners, by strong safety, the whole bit. So we’ll have our hands full.”
Paterno was pumped.
In a game as big as the Iowa contest -- maybe bigger, since it is on the road and another loss sends the Lions way down on the BCS charts and into a bowl only the mother of a long snapper could love, Penn State’s players -- and coaches -- need to learn from the Iowa loss. Not just now, but in the heat of battle.
Let’s not discount the coaching that is going on now, this week, before game day. The preparation that goes into getting ready for a Michigan in 2009 is not the same as getting ready for a Maryland in 1973 (a 42-22 win). Joe knows this.
“Today is a little different than it was what I started to coach,” he said. “There wasn’t as much variation in the offensive sets or in the defensive schemes. It’s amazing how many different looks we have received in the games we’ve played…defensive looks.
“And that is what you have to get ready for. We hardly used to do anything on a Monday. Now Monday we try to expose the kids, both the offense and the defense, to something different a particular team may do. So when you do that you've got to have everything you've got available.”
Having said that (which is a popular phrase Paterno uses when presenting both sides of an argument), urban legend has it that the night before a road contest at Michigan a few years ago, Paterno got nervous and stripped down the offensive game plan, simplifying it to the point that the Lions didn’t do enough to take advantage of their Jimmy and Joe advantage. True? I dunno know. It may just be apocryphal. But the point is well-taken.
The Penn State coaching staff, led by Paterno, will need to be at its best. Michigan holds a 10-4 lead in the series since Penn State joined the Big Ten Conference in 1993. The Nittany Lions won three of the first four games in the early 1990s, but until its decisive 46-17 win at Beaver Stadium in 2008, Michigan won nine consecutive games. And in five of those games -- and in nine of the 14 games since the Lions joined the Big Ten -- Penn State ranked higher in the polls.
The difference maker just may be a Carr no longer on the road in Michigan. Former Michigan coach Lloyd Carr, who retired after the 2007 season, was 9-2 against Penn State. Nine and two?! Yes.
Joe’s 10-2 against Purdue, 9-1 vs. Army and 9-3 against Northwestern, for crying out loud.
Think about it. What’s this world coming to when after 60 years at the company, 44 years as the man in charge and 520 performance reviews (we call them games), a guy still has to prove himself?
That…now that, is the million dollar question.