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Penn State Football: Paterno's Purgatory of 1-1

by on September 15, 2010 11:44 AM

So there Joe Paterno sat, Tuesday afternoon in the Beaver Stadium media room. "How are you doin'?" he was asked.

"I hope you're doing better than I am," came the hoarse reply.

Comme si comme ca, eh, Monsieur JoePa?

"Other than the final score, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the Alabama game?"

It sucks being .500. Especially when you are used to winning 75.09469 percent of your games.

It's that way when you are 1-1.

Not so good, not too horribly bad. The odds are 50/50. I mean, who knows?

Especially when you are 1-1 and the win came against the 48th-ranked team in the latest Football Championship Subdivision poll (sponsored by The Sports Network and Fathead.com. The FCS rankings -- wow, what a promotional coup for those life-size poster decals). The FCS -- that's the old Division I-AA.

And how would you really know when the loss came against the best team in all of college football, all 338 of them: 120 in the FBS, 125 in the FCS and 92 in the NAIA.

HOW DO YOU KNOW?

How do you know how good your fairly inexperienced football team is when the distance between your first opponent and your second opponent is 798 miles -- the total mileage from Youngstown, Ohio, to Tuscaloosa, Ala.?

That's a gap so big that Evan Royster, Stephfon Green AND Silas Reed could run through it. All at once.

The 1-1 record is the yin and Yangstown State of Penn State football in 2010. The Nittany Lions are stuck somewhere in the middle.

And it may be a while until they get out.

With Kent State on Saturday in Beaver Stadium and Temple the Saturday after that, it'll be Oct. 2 until Paterno can truly get a handle on this year's squad. That's Week 5, when the Nittany Lions face the Hawkeyes in Iowa City, where they last won in 1999.

(Don't give me that hooey about Temple being a big test. Despite their exciting 13-10 overtime win against Central Michigan at home on Saturday, the Owls are absent in the AP poll this week and are tied for 53rd -- and last -- with East Carolina in the USA Today poll, receiving all of one vote. And let's get this straight while we're at it: Al Golden will not succeed Paterno.)

Paterno has been down this .500 path before -- over the course of his 45 seasons as head coach, 17 times he hasn't even made it to 2-0 to start the season. (Remarkably, he started 2-0 every year from 1991 to 1999). And only four times in his 16-year tenure as an assistant to Rip Engle did Joe The Loyal Assistant see a 2-0 record.

So, for practically half (29 seasons) of his 61-year coaching career Paterno has entered Game 3 with at least one loss.

FLASH CARDS AREN'T THE ANSWER

Don't look for Kent State to provide many answers.

The Golden Flashes are 1-1, with a 41-10 win over Murray State (not to be confused with Murry's Steaks) and a 26-13 loss at Boston College. The latter was a decent performance for KSU, which trailed only 6-3 at halftime. Kent State has allowed only 20 yards rushing this season, but has virtually no running game itself, especially now that it is without its top runner, Eugene Jarvis.

Normally, some of the answers about a team have made their way to their surface by now. As Paterno has said time and time again: "A football team improves the most between its first and second games."

But this year: Who can tell?

So, let's amend Paterno's bromide for 2010: "A football team improves the most between playing its first ranked opponent and its second ranked opponent."

Until then, there are a lot of things that Paterno and his team need to tackle. Like tackling. Let's take a look at what we know two games into the season, from Paterno's point of view -- at least as he shared it with the media yesterday.

JOE SAYS...

THE LIONS CAN'T TACKLE. "I can only say it so many times," repeated Paterno. "We gotta get better. We didn't tackle well, period. And some of it is technique. Some of it is a question that they're a little bit hesitant. Some of it was maybe they were out of position."

HIS TEAM HAS STRUGGLED TO CREATE A TURNOVER. Through two games, the opposition has run 117 plays from scrimmage and had nine kick and interception returns. And they have turned the ball only once -- and that came solely on the hustle of Derek Moye on that wacky fumble recovery and return and fumble by Alabama. Last season, the Nittany Lions averaged two takeaways a game, while the 2010 Penn State offense has lost the ball six times in two games. That's a minus 5 takeaway margin.

LEAVE ROYSTER ALONE. The senior running back has rushed for only 72 yards on 20 carries (a 3.6-yard average, 2.5 yards less than his career average) thus far. Paterno questioned Royster's weight, then his stamina. Royster responded by Tweeting that he was only four pounds heavier than last year.

Tuesday, Paterno said Royster is fine, that he hasn't received the blocking he should.

"Well, I think the effort's fine," Paterno said. "I don't know whether we've really established the kind of running game that Royster would do well in. Royster is a kind of 'pick 'em and spot 'em, give me a crack and I'll go' guy. He's not a guy who is going to run over you."

Royster needs just 10 yards to become the sixth Lion running back to reach 3,000 yards, and he is 409 yards from passing Curt Warner as Penn State's all-time leading rusher.

THE LINES ARE OK. On defense: "I think the down guys made a really strong effort," Paterno said. On offense: "I think they did a better job this past Saturday, because Alabama's a good defensive team."

ROB BOLDEN IS THE STARTING QUARTERBACK; the fight for the job is over. "No, it's not still open," Paterno said. "I think for a kid who wasn't even here for spring practice, to go in there and do what he's done, he's done well."

Bolden is 58 for 383 yards, with two touchdown passes and three interceptions. He showed poise against the No 1 team in the country, can take a hit and throws a bullet. He's a keeper and will be known as the quarterback who bridged the Paterno and Post-Paterno eras.

LINEBACKER GERALD HODGES is out with a broken leg and defensive back Stephon Morris is slowed by a foot injury.

HIS OFFENSE CAN MOVE THE BALL. Forty-four points against Youngstown State is nice, but the Tide really measures Penn State's high-water mark.

"We did a much better job offensively than I realized," said Paterno. "We only twice went three (downs) and out. We moved the ball pretty good."

Against Alabama, Bolden engineered three drives of 44 yards or more, three times getting into the red zone -- but having only three points to show it. (By comparison, 'Bama's offense also was in the red zone three times, but came away with 17 points -- just four points from the maximum possible.) Penn State had 17 first downs against the Tide, while Alabama had 19.

HE KNOWS THERE ARE PROBLEMS IN THE SECONDARY, although perhaps even he is surprised that after two games, the opposition has completed 75.5 percent (37 for 49) of its passes.

His take: "I don't think we're aggressive enough in the secondary and reacting to the ball because we're nervous about getting licked, maybe, because there's a lot of those kids that may be enough pressure up front, I don't know."

How could Joe know? After all, his team is 1-1, with Kent State on deck. Paterno has to wonder what he did to deserve that.

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Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for StateCollege.com since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. 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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