Paterno, Penn State's 38th year head coach, is under fire in Happy Valley once again. With eighth-ranked Ohio State coming in Saturday (3:30 p.m., ABC), the Nittany Lions (2-6, 0-4 Big Ten) must win to keep their meager hopes of a bowl game alive.
Plus, Paterno, who broke the Division I-A career wins record against Ohio State two years ago, needs all the wins he can get to keep pace with Florida State's Bobby Bowden, who took over the record from Paterno with his 339th career victory last Saturday.
Add it all up and many in the Keystone state are beginning to wonder whether the 76-year-old Paterno should call it a day.
But sources continue to indicate that Paterno has no intention of stepping down anytime soon. He was asked recently about the job he and his staff have done this season.
"I think our staff has done a great job," Paterno said. "We can't hang onto the ball for the kids and we can't catch the football for them. We can go over and over and over and do those kinds of things. We just have not played as well as you would like people to play. We have really been a pretty good football team. We really have. Sometimes when you lose, people can't live with that. I am not happy with it. This isn't where I like to be. I think my track record proves that.
"I have to be careful that we don't start misunderstanding why we are 2-6. We have played some good football teams that have played very, very well against us. They haven't given us the football and haven't made it easy for us. As I said, there are a couple of areas where we have to hang onto the ball a little bit better and catch it a little bit better. Our kicking game has not been a plus for us.
"What do you want me to say about the coaching staff? What do you want me to say about the kids? I have a very difficult time being critical. I was a little disappointed we didn't play a little better against Purdue and I said that after the game, but after looking at Purdue, Purdue is a darn good football team. They proved that when they beat Wisconsin. We are playing against good clubs and we are not playing as well as you would like to play in the sense of the little things."
In 2000 and ‘01, the Lions were 5-7 and 5-6, respectively, marking the only two-year period where PSU has missed a bowl game under Paterno. Last year, PSU rebounded with a 9-4 season, which was capped by a disappointing Capital One Bowl loss to Auburn.
Penn State lost four first-team All-Big Ten players off that squad in Heisman Trophy finalist and tailback Larry Johnson, wide receiver Bryant Johnson and defensive linemen Jimmy Kennedy and Michael Haynes.
Paterno welcomed back just 10 starters from last year's squad. Coincidentally, the Lions are starting 10 players who are sophomores or freshmen. But eight games deep into the season, Paterno knows youth is no longer a valid excuse.
"A lot of it is just the fact that we are a little careless," he said. "I am not going to blame it on youth anymore. You can only play so many games and say you are young. I think we have some kids that have to grow up. Other than that, I don't have any problem with anything right now except, 'Let's play.' "
Four of Penn State's six losses have been to ranked teams -- Nebraska, Minnesota, Purdue and Iowa.
"We know how to win," Paterno said. "We just have to do a couple of things. We know how to win. Expecting to win is a little different than learning how to win. Who you play has a lot to do with it too. I don't think it is Penn State. It is that the people playing against us now think they can beat us. For awhile there, we played a lot of people who didn't think they could beat us. We are not in that league anymore. We have people that think they can beat us. We have to go to the next step in discipline, hold onto the football and do a better job in the kicking game. I have never had a football team, I don't think, that was ever minus 11 in turnovers at this stage in the season.
"You don't get paid the big money if everything is easy. No, it isn't easy. You folks are tired of hearing me say it and I am always a little bit embarrassed to say things like, `I have a bunch of good, young kids' and thinking 'there he goes again.' They are good kids, want to be good and are willing to work at it. It is in a lot of ways fun.
"You guys hear me quoting Shakespeare and people like that but Shakespeare said, `Sweet are the fruits of adversity.' I have quoted that to you before. It is great to see everybody sitting out there just wondering what is going to happen when we feel we can get the job done. I don't think we have anybody that doesn't think they can get the job done. I hate to go into a room on a Monday after a loss and chew people out when they have given you the best effort they can give you and you have had one or two little things happen that have deprived them of, maybe, a good win. I back away from it. I think we are all right."
Mills Back In Charge
One thing that hasn't helped has been the injury status of third-year starting quarterback Zack Mills. He suffered a strained MCL in his knee during the Sept. 27 loss to Minnesota. He then missed the losses to Wisconsin and Purdue before relieving sophomore Michael Robinson in last week's loss to Iowa.
OSU fans will remember Mills (6-3, 216), who keyed the big comeback against the Buckeyes in a 29-27 PSU win in Happy Valley two years ago. He has climbed the PSU career passing charts and now stands second in career completions and passes and fifth in career touchdown passes (28). This season, he is 64 of 130 passing for 634 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions.
Robinson (6-2, 225) has played quarterback, tailback, wide receiver and returned punts for the Lions. As a passer, he has completed 54 of 126 passes for 725 yards with three touchdowns and four interceptions. He threw for a whopping 379 yards in the loss to Wisconsin.
Mills is likely to get the start against Ohio State, but Paterno said, "We have two fine quarterbacks and we will see how it plays out during the week."
PSU had high hopes for true freshman tailback Austin Scott (6-0, 215). But illness has stopped him from having a huge first year. On the year, he has 379 yards and five touchdowns on 82 carries.
"If he feels good, he will be right in the mix of things," Paterno said. "He is, obviously, a fine prospect as is Tony Hunt. Ricky Upton is not as flashy, but he gets the job done when he is in there. We are moving Donnie Johnson back from wideout to tailback and so forth. They are all right there, except for experience."
Senior Sean McHugh (6-6, 263) has 15 catches out of the backfield at fullback.
Senior split end Tony Johnson missed the Iowa game after a drunken driving arrest last week. There has been no announcement regarding whether Johnson, who leads PSU with 25 catches, will return to action this week. Junior Gerald Smith (14 catches) and sophomore Maurice Humphrey (10 catches) are also in the mix.
"We have Gerald Smith, Maurice Humphrey, Kinta Palmer, Josh Hannum who is really starting to make a move and Tony Johnson," Paterno said. "We have a whole bunch of kids that are all pretty good. You are waiting to see a couple of guys just come right smack up and say, `Hey, I am so good you have to play me and anything you put out in front of me I am going to catch.' Palmer is one of the kids. He has been a little disappointing because of the fact that he has made so many mental mistakes and has had trouble hanging onto the football at times. He is a great kid, works hard and one of these days will be a fine receiver. I will give you my old alibi again that they are young."
Seniors Mike Lukac (6-3, 253) and Matt Kranchick (6-8, 254) split time at tight end.
Just one starter from last year is left on the offensive line in senior right tackle Chris McKelvy (6-4, 320). Center Dave Cost low (6-3, 283) is at least a fifth-year senior. But the other linemen are all youthful with redshirt freshman Levi Brown (6-5, 312) at left tackle, sophomore Charles Rush (6-2, 297) at left guard and sophomore Tyler Reed (6-4, 309) at right guard.
Between the injuries and inconsistency at quarterback and tailback and the youth on the offensive line, it is easy to see why Penn State is 102nd nationally in passing offense (169.9 yards per game), 105th in total offense (308.0 yards per game) and 102nd in scoring offense (18.0 points per game).
Don't Pass On Us
Penn State can hang its helmets on the fact its defense is ranked No. 1 nationally against the pass at 127.6 yards per game. But that statistic is a loaded one. Few of its opponents accentuate the pass with Nebraska, Kent State, Minnesota and Wisconsin all leaning heavily to the run. And PSU's opponents have found the best way to beat the Lions is with the run. Penn State is a distant 107th nationally against the run at 216.4 yards allowed per game.
"I don't know how we are going to shore up the run, except by hard work," Paterno said. "We had three really tough practices last week. A lot of it was based on the fact that we had to get some of our younger offensive and defensive linemen to be a little bit more aware of what they are going to have to do in a football game. They need to be a little quicker coming off of blocks on the offense, staying on the block a little bit longer and just trying to make them a little bit better with what they have to do. Trying to speed up their experience process. I don't know what else you can do.
"We are not going to change the scheme and get them confused. We don't want to coach caution into them. We just want to make them better and more aware of what is happening to them. Obviously, every time you can practice hard and put them in situations where they have to be exposed to the things they are going to have happen to them on a Saturday, they should get better if they are going to be good football players. I think we are a little bit better. We will play better, whether it shows on the scoreboard or whether it shows in the stats about rushing, we will play better."
Obviously, Kennedy and Haynes left quite a void up front. But sophomore end Lavon Chisley (6-5, 263) has emerged as a leader with four sacks and 6-½ tackles-for-loss. He is joined up front by sophomore Matt Rice (6-4, 269) at end and sophomore Tamba Hali (6-3, 271) and redshirt freshman Jay Alford (6-3, 268) at defensive tackle.
Some believe the linebacking corps, though heavy with tackles, is also to blame for PSU's inability to stop the run. Inside linebacker Gino Capone, a 6-2, 238-pound fifth-year senior, leads the Lions with 82 tackles. But just 1-½ of them have been for losses. He is joined in the LB corps by senior Deryck Toles and junior Derek Wake, each with 51 stops.
The secondary has been reasonably strong, as indicated by the pass defense numbers. The leader is senior hero (strong safety) Yaacov Yisrael, who has 55 tackles and three interceptions. Junior Chris Harrell (37 stops) is the free safety. The corners are sophomore Alan Zemaitis (53 tackles, three interceptions) and senior Rich Gardner.
PSU's special teams have also suffered this season. Kicker Robbie Gould is just 7 of 13 on field goals. Punter Jeremy Kapinos is averaging 41.9 yards per punt. PSU opponents have returned three punts for touchdowns.
* Penn State holds the all-time series lead with OSU 10-8, including 4-2 in University Park. But Ohio State leads the series since PSU joined the Big Ten in 1993 by a 6-4 margin. Since PSU joined the conference, the home team has won every game except for 1995, when OSU won in University Park 28-25.
* Last year, Ohio State took a 13-7 win in Columbus. OSU held PSU to just 179 yards total offense with Mills finishing 14 of 28 for 98 yards with three interceptions. OSU's Chris Gamble, starting on both sides of the ball at cornerback and flanker for the first time in his career, took one of those interceptions back 40 yards in the third quarter for OSU's only touchdown. Mike Nugent tacked on two 37-yard field goals as well for the Buckeyes.
* Paterno is 6-8 all-time against OSU. (We will have a full look at the OSU-PSU series later in the week.)
* ABC will broadcast the OSU-PSU game for the 10th time in 11 years since PSU joined the Big Ten. ESPN televised the 2001 game in University Park.
* Penn State is one of two protected rivals for OSU with Michigan the other. Under the current Big Ten scheduling format, OSU will play those two schools every year. Michigan State is PSU's other protected rival.
* PSU has 10 players on its roster from Ohio, including starters Harrell (Euclid), McHugh (Chagrin Falls), and Toles (Warren Harding). Other notables from Ohio include junior defensive end Sam Ruhe (Cuyahoga Falls Walsh Jesuit) and sophomore tight end Isaac Smolko (New Middletown Springfield).
* Click the link below for game data, including information on Penn State, depth charts, a game breakdown, an ABC coverage map and one man's opinion on how this game figures to go.