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Penn State Football: Good Evening, Lions and Germs

by on November 17, 2009 8:02 PM

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Joe Paterno was a regular Milton Berle on Tuesday. A Shecky Greene. A Henny Youngman.

Take Michigan State, please.

Joe could hardly get anyone to focus on the Spartans at his weekly press conference. His Nittany Lions (9-2, 5-2 Big Ten) face Sparty (6-5, 4-3) at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Spartan Stadium. And all anyone wanted to talk about was…well, everything else.

(Click here for the full transcript and here for the audio.) 

And all Joe wanted to do was NOT talk about anything else. So when a non-Michigan State question came up -- in all, there were 28 questions in 29 minutes and 35 seconds -- he flashed his grandpa’s smile, loosened his windbreaker and showed off that Ivy League wit that was the staple of his rubber chicken circuit in the 1960s and ’70s.

Q. What, no standard-issue JoePa suitcoat?

A. “I know I usually wear a jacket. But after watching you guys for 11 weeks, I felt a little overdressed.”

Q. And the tie?

A. “My wife says, ‘You’re not going to wear that to this press conference?’ I say, ‘Some of those guys don’t even know what a tie is.’ ”

Speaking of ties, Penn State is lodged in second place in the Big Ten standings with Iowa and Wisconsin at 5-2. Ohio State, at 6-1, already has an automatic bid to the Rose Bowl. The Nittany Lions can still get a share of the title if they win and the Buckeyes lose – Ohio State plays at Michigan at noon on Saturday. Wisconsin is at Northwestern and Iowa plays host to Minnesota.

You have to hand it to Jerry Palm of collegebcs.com. He’s been telling anyone who will listen and then promote his Web site (that’s collegebcs.com) that if the Nittany Lions win, they’ll go to a BCS bowl game. Maybe the Orange. (Oy, think of all of those snowbirds that Joe can entertain.) And this even if Iowa wins as well. Oh, did I tell you: collegebcs.com.

Q. So, Joe, what’s the scoop on the BCS?

A. “You know, you guys know more than I do.”

Now that’s a joke.

Q. Joe, your team has started slow in all three road games, scoring 13 points combined at Michigan, Northwestern and Illinois. Why?

A. “…I really don’t know. Your guess is as good as mine.” Pause. “We had a slow start last weekend at home.” (Zero first-quarter points vs. Indiana.)

Not quite Dane Cook. More like Jerry Stiller meets Stephen Colbert. Joe The Football Guy.

Q. What about your punt return guys? They fumbled three times and lost two against Indiana.

A. “We’re not going to let them punt.”

Wait ’til Joe talks with ABC’s Mike Patrick, Craig James and Heather Cox, the crew for Saturday’s game. They’ll be dialing up Kimmel so fast to get Joe a late night guest gig that will make your football spin.

Q. No, seriously. The return game?

A. “Every week has been challenging -- one way or another.”

Q. C’mon, really, do you anticipate any changes there?

A. “Oh, yeah. You’re talking to an old punt returner. I still hold the Brown record for yardage in one game in punt returns.”

Well, actually, it’s the Brown career record for interception return yards (290) that he holds. His 14 picks are tied for career best at Brown -- 59 years after he graduated. And Paterno did have the career punt return yardage record (350) from 1949 to 1994.

So how would Paterno do returning punts today?

Well, probably just a little bit better than Zug and Astorino -- but you have to remember that Joe is five weeks from his 83rd birthday, so he may have lost a step or two.

Speaking of quarterbacks, did you hear the one about…

Backup quarterback Kevin Newsome has played in eight games, but barely. In 2009 he’s thrown eight passes and carried the ball 17 times, an odd ratio. Daryll Clark’s numbers are 319 and 66.

Next season, Newsome is the prime candidate to be the starting quarterback after a year of being the staring quarterback. This year, backup QBs in the Big Ten have decided games when the starter went down. Happened when Penn State played Northwestern, after starter Mike Kafka was bliztkrieging the Nittany Lions. And it happened with Ricky Stanzi of Iowa went down, forcing a guy so obscure I don’t know his name -- OK, it’s James Vandenberg -- to take Ohio State to overtime.

Newsome was on the field for one play against the Big Ten cellar-dwelling Hoosiers on Saturday.

Q. Newsome played one play vs. Indiana. What was the thinking behind that?

A. “You know, Kevin Newsome has a future, but we put him in, let him get knocked around a little bit…He can run with the football, change of pace. You know, you hate to be out of style. The wildcat…” (This is where Joe goes into his aforementioned tie shtick.) “I just want to be stylish, so we stick the wildcat in there one play a game.”

Q. Speaking of freshmen, that Curtis Drake looks pretty good at wide receiver. Why didn’t he play very much until after Chaz Powell got hurt?

A. “Because Powell was better. Don’t you go to games?”

The Penn State-Michigan State rivalry is loaded with rich material. The Nittany Lions have lost four of the last six times they’ve played in East Lansing, and although they are 8-0 at home against MSU, they are only 4-4 on the road. Last year’s 49-18 spanking by Penn State aside, the three previous games were decided by four, four and nine points.

Since Penn State joined the Big Ten in 1993, Sparty has had six different coaches, including one interim coach when Bobby Williams was fired with a few games left in the 2002 season. They are, with their record against Penn State in parentheses: George Perles (0-2), Nick Saban (2-3), Williams (0-2), Morris Watts (0-1), John L. Smith (1-3) and Mark Dantonio (1-1), their current coach.

Are MSU and PSU close? Well, they’re separated by an N and an O.

Over the past 16 seasons, Penn State has won 50 more games than Michigan State. The Nittany Lions, under one coach -- our favorite comic, stand-up Joe -- are 145-67 (.684). The Spartans are 95-100 (.487).

Q. What about the series, especially with Penn State as the new kids on the Big Ten block?

A. “…I think as we play our way into where we’re not the outcasts there in the hinterlands, it will be very significant end-of-the-season game for both teams and the league.”

Don’t forget to tip the Sports Information staff on your way out... Last question?

Q. What do you think about your 9-2 record?

A. “We’ll, I think we played well…You guys are the guys who are disappointed, I think.”

You aren't kidding!



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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