Penn State Football: Say It Ain't So, JoePa
UNIVERSITY PARK -- The man who never speaks in superlatives, did.
The coach who disdains hyperbole, got all hyper.
The legend who's seen it all -- dozens of times over -- is seeing it for the first time. Through crimson-colored glasses.
Even if you're Joe Paterno, who has been head coach of 45 teams for 527 games at Penn State (61 years and 683 games overall at PSU), you can still learn something new at 83 years and nine months.
Like what it means to go into the backyard of the reigning national champion -- No. 1 and still counting, actually; the Tide is still atop the polls – figuring to be "outmanned." Joe's words, not mine.
At his press conference in the Beaver Stadium media room on Tuesday, Paterno sat there and spent 30-plus minutes sounding like part Eeyore and part Montessori teacher. To paraphrase: "We're young, we have a lot to learn, no way we can match up with them."
The Nittany Lion coach, who has been on the sidelines for 13 games between Penn State and Alabama (4-8 as a head coach), was not exactly rueing the day the series was postponed at Alabama's request after NCAA sanctions cut hard into the Tide's scholarship tally.
No, he was just being realistic -- we think -- when he talked about the 14th-ranked Nittany Lions' chances against top-ranked Alabama on Saturday. The Tide marks the 15th time Penn State has faced a No. 1 team. Twelve have been under JoePa's watch as head coach (for a 4-8 record), one came when he was an assistant (a loss) and the other one was in 1937 (a 28-7 loss to Pitt; not Joe's fault -- he wasn't quite 11 years old at the time).
The last time Penn State beat a No. 1 team was in 1990, against Notre Dame. Coincidentally, that year was the last time the Nittany Lions played Alabama. It was a 9-0 win for PSU in Tuscaloosa, where Saturday's game kicks off at 7 p.m. Eastern.
Paterno won't recognize Bryant-Denny Stadium -- it is now the fifth-largest on-campus college stadium, with 101,821 seats and 159 sky boxes. The last time Paterno visited Bryant-Denny, it had just 70,123 seats and though a Paterno contemporary (erected in 1929), it was crumbling. Still, it was quite the Bear trap, with Paul "Bear" Bryant's teams going 72-2 (.933) there.
Bryant's Tide beat Paterno's Lions at Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala., in 1982, by a 42-21 whopper. But PSU rebounded to win the national that year. In 1981, Bryant -- who beat Paterno in the 1975 and 1979 Sugar Bowls -- tied Amos Alonzo Stagg as the all-time winningest major college football coach with a 31-16 win in Beaver Stadium. That made Bear 4-0 vs. Joe.
Paterno, who through the years has shown great fondness for Bear, at the Tuesday press conference deftly played off questions about his relationship with Bryant. A class move, focusing on the game.
(I have a good Paterno-Bear anecdote. For two decades, I did an annual Q&A with Paterno. Late in the millennium, as we walked down the hall of the Greenberg Indoor Sports Complex, which housed his office at the time, I told Paterno I thought I had figured out in which game he would pass Bryant's record. Joe just looked at me, shook his head a bit and said, "That damn Bear, I never could beat him.")
Joe did better against Ray Perkins (1983-1986), Bill Curry (1987-1989) and Gene Stallings (1990) going 4-4 against that big-name triumvirate.
Nick Saban, the current head coach at Alabama, is the ninth head coach at Alabama since Bryant left the sidelines. The other five are: Mike DuBose (1997-2000), Dennis Franchione (2001-2002), Mike Price (fired prior to the 2003 season), Mike Shula (2003-2006) and Joe Kines (interim in 2006).
To recap: Since 1983, Penn State has one head coach; Alabama has had nine. One. Nine.
HE SAID, SHE SAID
All that is not what is on Paterno's mind as he readies his team for the program's first game against a top-ranked team since 2007, when the Lions lost 37-17 to Ohio State.
Let's see what is. And we will be quoting him exactly as he said it on Tuesday.
Joe said: "It's the youngest team I've ever really coached."
Upon further review: Well, yeah, kind of. My colleague Steve Sampsell, who blogs at TalkingTVsports.com, says that Joe's right is a very real sense. As Paterno has aged, the players really are getting younger – at least in years between them and him.
Of course, the players are always young. They're always between 18 and 22. Joe is talking experience here, but he may have forgotten what happens when his team wins a national championship (1982, 1986) or almost wins one (2005) or makes the kind of 22-4 run it did in 2008-09. It's time to rebuild, not reload.
It's difficult to quantify youth sometimes, but experience on the playing field can be measured fairly easily. Lots of lettermen equals lots of depth. Lots of starters back usually means lots of wins. So, the 1983, 1987, 1988 and 2006 teams may just have well been as young as the 2010 squad. Or younger. (And you true historians know that the 1967 team, the one that got it all started for Joe, had a roster of mere children.)
2010 Penn State
Lettermen returning: 35
Starters returning: 13
Lettermen lost: 22
Starters lost: 11
2006 Penn State
Lettermen returning: 34
Starters returning: 11
Lettermen lost: 26
Starters lost: 13
1988 Penn State
Lettermen returning: 33
Starters returning: 12
Lettermen lost: 28
Starters lost: 14
1987 Penn State
Lettermen returning: 30
Starters returning: 7
Lettermen lost: 30
Starters lost: 17
1983 Penn State
Lettermen returning: 35
Starters returning: 12
Lettermen lost: 21
Starters lost: 14
SACCA SACKED AT ALABAMA
When Paterno talks about the Lions' youth, he holds up quarterback Rob Bolden -- who had his first career start last Saturday against Youngstown State -- as Exhibit A. Well, quarterback Tony Sacca was the first such Exhibit A in Penn State football history.
In 1988 Sacca was the last -- and after Bolden on Saturday, the only other -- true Penn State freshman to start at quarterback on the road. All told, Sacca started five games in his first year at Penn State. His first such venture away from Beaver Stadium came against Temple -- a 45-9 win. Easy.
Three weeks later -- well that's a different story. Against Alabama in Birmingham on Oct. 22, 1988, Sacca was hounded by 'Bama All-American linebacker Derrick Thomas all game long. Sacca completed 8 of 28 passes for 98 yards and an interception. He also had seven rushes for minus 29 yards as Penn State didn't make a first down in the second half until there were only 54 seconds left in the game. Yikes.
MIRACLE AWAY FROM MOUNT NITTANY
Joe said: "That's what you come to places like Penn State for, because you have opportunities to play in games like this. That doesn't mean a miracle's going to happen. We come home and we'll be better having played the game and we'll go from there."
Upon further review: As miracles go, these are some of the biggest in Penn State football history:
1976 -- unranked PSU beats No. 14 Maryland, 15-13
1980 -- No. 17 PSU wins at No. 9 Missouri, 29-21 (in redshirt freshman Todd Blackledge's first start ever)
1981 -- No. 11 PSU comes back at No. 1 Pitt, 48-14
1985 -- unranked PSU wins at No. 7 Maryland, 20-18
1986 -- No. 6 PSU wins at No. 2 Alabama, 23-3
1987 -- unranked PSU beats No. 7 Notre Dame, 21-20
1990 -- No. 18 PSU wins at No. 1 Notre Dame, 24-20
2005 -- No. 16 PSU beats No. 6 Ohio State, 17-10
Joe said: "...As far as Penn State is concerned, I think the Alabama-Penn State game is a good game for us. Even though I feel like we were outmanned because of age and things of that sort and maturity."
Upon further review: Yeah, well, the last time a young Penn State team was in this situation, it did get outmanned. Joe knows whereof he speaks.
After winning the national champion in 1982, Penn State came back to open the college football season by playing Nebraska in the Kickoff Classic in the New Jersey Meadowlands. That 1983 team had fewer starters returning and had about the same amount of playing experience on the field as the 2010 team does. The Nittany Lions lost that game 44-6. And, yes, they were outmanned.
So were the Nittany Lions in 2001, when they lost 33-7 to Miami (Fla.) in the season-opening rechristening of Beaver Stadium. And, yes, they were outmanned.
And let's not forget UCLA, a 49-11 winner in 1966; Notre Dame, a 44-7 winner in 1984; and Ohio State, a 45-6 winner in 2000. You know the drill: outmanned.
(A brief aside: Even on those rare instances when Penn State gets outmanned under Paterno, it scores points. Only eight times in Paterno's illustrious career has his team been shut out.)
THE LAST WORD
If Paterno is right, youth will not be served on Saturday in Tuscaloosa and the Nittany Lions will need a miracle to win against an outmanned team. Joe's words, not mine.
As Joe himself said: "I mean, it's a football game, not the crusades."
Related football links
- Guess what? Penn State is facing Alabama this week! Check out previews at ESPN.com, PennLive.com, CentreDaily.com
- Freshman QB Rob Bolden has most of his friends and family rooting for him, but one uncle is tied too closely to Alabama to cheer on his nephew. (PittsburghLive.com)