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Penn State Football: You Lose One, Then Win Some

by on September 30, 2009 9:14 AM

Even in complete and utter defeat to Iowa on Saturday, Joe Paterno did not have the look of a beaten man. Soaked? Yes. Caught in an undertow? Hardly. No handwringing, although there had to be some towelwringing, given the two Paterno had along the sidelines -- the one around his neck and the one he carried around all game long.

But neither towel served as a noose, either self-constructed or appropriated for a misfiring quarterback or bad blocking tackle, immediately after the 21-10 nationally televised collapse in what is now an annual ritual for the Hawkeyes. And not in the days -- or daze, if you live in the blue and white states of the Nittany Nation -- after the defeat.

After surely drying off from within with a few beverages on Saturday night (Paterno’s choice is, fittingly enough, Old Grand Dad), the coach and players awoke Sunday morning with a firm resolve: “It’s not over.”

Now, the cynics among us -- after Saturday they number in the tens of thousands -- would say the Lion coaches and players are just echoing the company line. And you (you know who you are) might very well be correct.

But when Paterno presented himself in the Beaver Stadium media room on Tuesday, he was calm, cool, collected, confident and even cordial. He joked before the formal questions and didn’t go on a single stress-induced harangue -- save for when he went off on a reporter who asked if Joe Paterno had talked with Joe Suhey about the latter’s return to his home state.

(“Really, you guys. We’ve got a football team that just got licked. If you think I’m going around saying, “Are you happy? Are you happy? What would you like to do? Would you like me to come and brush your teeth for tomorrow morning because you’re going to be going home?” No, c’mon on, knock it off, will ya?)

But Paterno took a mulligan on the question, when presented in a different form, and provided a thoughtful and heartfelt soliloquy on what the Suhey family means to Paterno, Penn State and all of college football.

Paterno was on his best behavior. He seemed younger. He listened to questions more carefully, provided substantive answers. He was engaged. He seemed oddly, softly energized by the loss, with an underpinning of confidence that may be a bit surprising when describing the coach of a team that was punked by some of the unhippest guys in all of college football.

“You know, I’m disappointed in that we didn’t win the football game, obviously,” Joe said. “But I’m not discouraged. I am not discouraged with this football team.”

Then Paterno said the offensive line is “coming along really well.” True -- not necessarily true in that the line is coming along, just true that the coach said it.

And he said his only true lament in the loss was after Iowa took an interception to the 27-yard line and on the quick switch from offense to defense his team “didn’t play good defense for two downs. That’s about the only thing in the game that I felt we really didn’t have the kind of effort you need.”

The only thing?

Paterno understands that his confidence is not shared by all those folks who were still soggy on Sunday when a record number of them showed up at the Verizon retail store on State College’s North Atherton Street, their cellphones rendered inoperable by the torrents of rain that fell inside the stadium. (When I left the store mid-day, the line for service was 22 dead cellphone owners long with a wait approaching two hours. Apparently, a lot of friends and family were hung up by more than the loss.)

Paterno may understand how those fans feel, but after 60 years as a coach, frankly Scarlett from Scranton, he doesn’t give a damn.

The only ones he has to convince that the Nittany Lions were not so bad on Saturday are his players and his coaches.

Many of the players lifted weights on Sunday. They all saw tape of the loss on Monday. And if the two players trotted out for the media after Paterno’s press conference on Tuesday are any indication, they are already convinced.

They both said the right things.

“I don’t think anyone pressed the panic button. It’s Tuesday now. We’re refocused on the next game,” said sophomore safety Drew Astorino. Drew aspires to be a social studies teacher, so his flat and unexcited delivery is reminiscent of that all-time classroom snooze, economics teacher Ben Stein, in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

Sitting there Tuesday, in those little classroom chairs Penn State has in its interview room, I was almost ready for Astorino to field the next question with an “Anyone? Anyone?”

“We have eight games left -- we can take it from there. You saw what we did last year with one loss,” said senior tight end Andrew Quarless, a productive pass-catcher, polished and personable after being in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons in prior years.

Both referenced that Florida, the college football national champion for the 2008 season, had one loss. In fact, the team the Gators beat, Oklahoma, entered the BCS championship game with a loss as well.

That is not to say Penn State will rebound to win the national championship. No way I’m drinking that Kool-Aid. Even if the pollsters didn’t say boo about it on PSU’s climb to No. 4, the computers have been snickering about the Nittany Lions’ softer-than-Charmin non-con schedule since August.

The questions, then, are these:

1.) Have or can the Penn State players put the loss behind them?

Quarless, in a cozy little on-the-record conversation after the bright lights of a formal media Q&A, seemed relaxed and confident, but not brash, about that notion.

“The spirits of the guys are very high, even the younger players, which is a little surprising,” Quarless said. “We feel we have a good shot at the Big 10 title. Joe’s definitely been upbeat. We don’t worry about the media or fans pounding on us. You look at our team and we know we have some awesome talent. We’re confidence in ourselves, so it’s easy to stay positive.”

This week, that task is made easier by the fact that the Illinois football team -- with or without Juice Williams at quarterback -- is not very good. The Illini are 1-2, with a 45-17 win over vaunted Illinois State. In losses against Missouri and Ohio State, they fell by a combined 67-9. That’s exactly the kind of life raft the water-logged Lions need.

2.) Can Paterno rally his troops after a loss? They are, after all, 5-3 in their last eight games, as pointed out by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ron Musselman.

True enough, but even Judy from Muncy can tell you that two of those losses were to Iowa. That’s somewhat reminiscent of the 1971 and ’72 seasons, when the Lions closed out their 1971 regular season with a loss at Tennessee, licked No. 2 Texas in the Cotton Bowl, then opened the 1972 season with a 30-6 loss back down at Tennessee. That’s a 1-2 record right there -- wow, Penn State must have sucked.

Hardly. Let’s look at the context. Over a 54-game span from mid-1970 to mid-1974, Penn State lost all of three games -- two of them to Tennessee. You need to Volunteer that information, both for the good and the bad.

Let’s take some truer measures of the Lions and their recent abilities and also their ability to be resilient.

Since the Lions lost to Illinois in Champaign on Sept. 29, 2007, they have ripped off a 20-5 skein. That’s 80 percent ball. The losses have been to Iowa (twice), at Michigan State by four, at Ohio State by 20 and to USC by 14 in the Rose Bowl. All but OSU and USC were eminently winnable.

(In their last 25 games, Texas is 22-3, Florida is 22-3…although 22-5 in its last 27 games, USC is 21-4, Oklahoma is 20-5, Alabama is 19-6, Ohio State is 19-6 and Michigan is 14-11. Good company, no matter the conference and their respective cupcakes.)

Most important this week (and that’s what we are really talking about here, right?), though, is Penn State’s recent record for bouncing back from a loss. Since 2005, the Nittany Lions have lost 10 times with a chance to win the very next game; one time (2007) that shot at redemption came in a bowl game. And guess what? They won nine of those 10 times – 90 percent ball. That’s the best string of Paterno’s 44-year head coaching career. True.

As pointed out to me by former Gannett honcho and current Penn State distinguished professor John Curley, who knows a thing or two about running big-time enterprises as well as big-time football, this truly is a renewed and golden era of Joe Paterno. Over the past four-and-a-half seasons, this has been -- with apologies to John Updike -- Paterno Redux.

Here’s Paterno’s record and winning percentage after such aforementioned losses by decade. Obvious is the downhill trend – until 2005.

1960s -- 5-2, 71 percent

1970s -- 11-5, 73 percent

1980s -- 18-6, 75 percent

1990s – 15-8, 65 percent

2000s – 22-18, 55 percent

2000-2004 -- 13-17, 43 percent

2005-2008 – 9-1, 90 percent

No one can say that Paterno is coaching more these days, but that 90 percent bounceback rate may imply that he is coaching better. You better believe that Brooklyn Joe already knows that figure and -- and pay attention, this is the premise of the previous 1,598 words -- how that success rate was, and will be, achieved.

And that, my friends, is most assuredly a big reason that Joe Paterno thinks all the disbelievers, especially this week following a loss, are…ahem…all wet. Towel, please.



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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