"We never took anything away from them and I always think if you can't do that that's got to be a little bit of coaching," Paterno said on Tuesday about last season‘s blowout defeat. "We didn't take anything away from them and we didn't take advantage of anything. We just didn't play well."
The 14th-ranked Nittany Lions can turn the tables this Saturday evening. The Irish travel to State College, PA to take on Penn State. Kickoff is scheduled for 6:02 PM and ESPN will have the television coverage. There's a reason this is one of the hottest tickets for the entire season. Both schools are among the top-10 in all-time victories and winning percentage and two of only 10 Division 1A programs with at least 700 wins. Notre Dame and Penn State have played only 19 times in their histories.
Paterno's success has been well-documented. The Nittany Lions head coach is in his 42nd season as the man in charge in Happy Valley and is second on the career list for all-time victories. Paterno has won 364 contests and owns a winning percentage of 74.9. The Penn State head coach has won two national titles and led his teams to five undefeated seasons. Paterno enjoys playing another traditional college football team, although he wishes the meetings were more frequent.
"We've had our days," Paterno said. "Notre Dame's had its days, and we'll play now. It's unfortunate we're not playing more. I was disappointed when Big Ten tried to get Notre Dame to come and they decided to turn it down. I always thought that would always be a good school for us to play. That's where I am. I like playing Notre Dame. I think it's fun. I like playing all these guys. Otherwise what are you in it for?"
The game on this Saturday might have lost a little of its luster. The Irish were pounded by Georgia Tech 33-3 at home while Penn State routed Florida International 59-0 in Happy Valley. But Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis' decision to start true freshman Jimmy Clausen should make a lot of people switch the channel over to ESPN.
Clausen was one of the best recruits coming out of high school last year and enrolled early in January. After an off-season surgery to remove a bone spur, the freshman is healthy enough to take the reigns of the Irish offense. The move was made easier by the play of quarterbacks Demetrius Jones and Evan Sharpley in the loss to Georgia Tech. Clausen's challenge: make his first start on the road in front of over 107,000 fans at Beaver Stadium clad in white at night against a defense that pitched a shutout last week.
"It's a challenge to him, sure," Paterno said. "I think anytime you take a freshman who's never played in a football game and put him in a situation where there is television and the whole bit. Yeah sure I think it's a challenge but they know better than I know about their own team. I don't worry about their team. I got to worry about my team."
Penn State is a little more settled at quarterback. Senior Anthony Morelli went through his own growing pains last season. In his first true road start at Notre Dame last season, the 6-4, 231-pound signal caller was 21-of-33 for 189 yards and threw a touchdown and interception each. By the time the season had ended, Morelli held the school record for attempts and completions. The junior led the Nittany Lions to an Outback Bowl victory over Tennessee after completing 14-of-25 passes for 197 yards, one touchdown and zero interceptions.
Morelli carried over a strong finish to the Florida International opener. The junior tossed for 295 yards and three scores in the 59-0 win over FIU. Morelli has an impressive group of wide receivers to throw the ball to in Derrick Williams, Deon Butler and Jordan Norwood. Paterno thinks his starting quarterback has made a lot of progress since last season's contest in South Bend.
"Morelli is a much better quarterback than he was a year ago at this time going into his second game and we're playing home," Paterno said. "That was a tough job for him going out there last year, to take a football team that was still shaky about a lot of things. I think we're a better football team than we were a year ago. I think Morelli is better. I think the wide-outs, the people who you would hope would make some plays, are further along. So I think we're in a little better shape."
The atmosphere should be electric inside Beaver Stadium. Notre Dame has not played a game there since 1991. The entire crowd has been asked to wear white to the contest. The eager fan base will make things loud for Clausen and company. Paterno is not expecting a Notre Dame team still in a daze from the Georgia Tech defeat. The Penn State head coach expects the Irish's best effort.
"They're not going to come in here with their tails dragging," Paterno said. "They're going to come in here with fire in their eyes. The worst thing that could have happened to us was their getting licked last week. They've got pride and they've got tradition and they have kids who went to Notre Dame with high expectations for different things that would happen to them and we just have got to be ready for that.
"Now, whether were ready for that or not whether were mature enough to understand what we've got to get in there, we'll see."