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Penn State Football: Can Paterno Fix the Lions One Final Time?

by on September 13, 2011 2:27 AM

Joe Paterno has been on the receiving end of some pretty tough criticism in a head coaching career that began with “F Troop” and has lasted into “The L Word.”

Starting in 1966, it’s a journey that until recently didn’t involve Twitter, blogs, STEP or busted body parts.

And certainly didn’t include Buzz Bissinger. Until now.

Bissinger is the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer who authored “Friday Night Lights.” These days, he can call for Paterno to retire one minute – 9:26 p.m. EDT, Sept. 7, 2011 — and have 10,000 hits seemingly a few minutes later.

And then he can come back a few days later and Tweet that he hopes Temple beats Penn State.

That’s a far cry from the early days of the Paterno Administration, which has spanned nine administrations of the presidential kind.

Not that Paterno wasn’t criticized. It just wasn’t often. But when it was, it was often valid.

Like now.

RECORD CRITICISM

The Nittany Lions are 1-1 in 2011, and 8-7 over the past 15 games, and 1-8 vs. their last nine Top 25 opponents, and 1-13 vs. their last 14 Top 5 opponents, and losers by an average of 17.3 points over their past seven losses.

With Joe now 84 and in the box, sans headphones, and Penn State’s quarterbacks out like little kids for timeouts and timeouts all out after a quarter (no kidding), Paterno is a lightning rod for criticism.

Maybe moreso than 2000-2004.

A half-decade ago, Paterno was challenged with four losing seasons out of five. He preached that the team was close to being good again, if he could just make sure his coaches didn’t leave. Oh, and by the way, let's get some fast guys, too.

He had a plan for fixing it. And he articulated the plan, to one (Graham Spanier) and all (recruits, players and staff).

Paterno stuck to his guns, kept his assistants together, brought in Derrick Williams and Justin King. Got lucky with Deon Butler and Jordan Norwood. And finally listened to son Jay about Daryll Clark.

And, in retrospect, Joe was right: They were close.

A TOUCHDOWN AWAY

In the Nittany Lions’ 13 losses to Top 25 teams leading up to the 2005 season – when MRob led PSU to the promised land with an 11-1 record and a No. 3 ranking – their average margin of defeat was just 6.9 points. A touchdown. That’s close.

Joe was right. He did know what he’s talking about. Of course.

Fast forward to today, three days after the Nittany Lions’ defeat at the hands of No. 2 Alabama, 27-11, on Saturday in Beaver Stadium:

With the loss to the Tide, Penn State has now lost 13 games to Top 25 opponents since 2006.

Ah, symmetry. We got ’em losing coming and going. We can now measure the 13 before 2005 with the 13 after 2005. The difference? Ten points a game. They got 10 points worse.

Since 2006, when the Nittany Lions lose to a Top 25 team, it’s a blowout. They lose by almost 16.4 points. That’s two touchdowns and a field goal.

Can Joe fix it? Again?

JOE THE HANDYMAN

Paterno fixed it after the 1960s and ’70s, when the schedule was soft, when only 16 of Paterno’s first 101 opponents were in the Top 20.

In the 1981 and ’82 two seasons the Lions played nine teams ranked No. 15 or better – and beat seven of them, including Georgia, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Pitt and Southern Cal (but not Alabama). They beat two No 1’s, a 2, a 5 and an 8.

He fixed it after losing to Alabama in the 1979 Sugar Bowl, after which he was labeled a choker and told he couldn’t win the big one. They were right: He won the Big Two, in 1982 and ’86.

He fixed it heading into the Big Ten Conference, when his team was sliding after averaging eight wins a season for six years, including Penn State’s first losing season since 1938.

With the Big Ten, the gauntlet was laid down. Just how could Penn State compete against the Michigans and Ohio States of the world?

The fix was in. The first five years in the Big Ten, Penn State went 31-9 in the conference, 51-10 overall and 4-6 vs. opponents ranked in the Top 10. And they won the Big Ten title and went undefeated in 1994.

Joe was only 67 years old then. And 77 when he started to lead Penn State out of the dark years, after it went 26-33 over five seasons and into 11-win seasons in 2005, 2008 and 2009.

AGE OLD QUESTION

Paterno fixed it then. Can he do it again, once more for old time(r)’s sake?

His plan entering the 2011 season -- well-executed until the afternoon of Aug. 7 -- was to be fit, to be more hands on, to fire up the players and the staff. To call plays. To challenge people. To be healthy. To be 67 again.

Now, it’s time for Plan B. What that is, we don’t know. Maybe he doesn’t either. Paterno has yet to share his plans – at least with the media.

All he wants them to do is buzz off.

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Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979. He is a senior lecturer in Penn State's College of Communications and teaches a pair of classes in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism: “Sports Writing” and “Introduction to the Sports Industry.” He created and taught for several years the Center’s course on “Joe Paterno, Communications and The Media.” Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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