Penn State fans have been waiting these last several years for 78-year-old head coach Joe Paterno to finally ride off into the sunset and retire. After all, the Nittany Lions have struggled threw four losing seasons in the last five years.
PSU was on top of the world at No. 2 nationally and 9-0 overall in November 1999. But a home loss to Minnesota started a spiral that most Lions fans would like to forget. Beginning with that defeat and running through 2004, Penn State posted a record of 22-29.
But things are looking up for the 16th-ranked Nittany Lions, who are 5-0 this season and host sixth-ranked Ohio State Saturday night at Beaver Stadium (7:45 p.m., ESPN).
Paterno has found some much needed playmaking help from a group of freshmen who have energized Penn State and have Lions fans wondering if this will, indeed, be Paterno's last great stand.
The newcomers include wide receivers Derrick Williams, Justin King, Jordan Norwood and Deon Butler. Butler is actually a redshirt freshman, while the others are true freshmen. They have provided some big play ability PSU has not had in recent years.
"They're pretty good," Paterno said with a sly smile during ABC's broadcast of last Saturday's 44-14 decimation of Minnesota.
It goes without saying that Paterno, in his 40th year as the PSU head coach and 56th at the school altogether, is old school. He typically does not allow his freshman players to be interviewed. His motto may be "freshmen are better seen (on the scout team) and not heard."
But when he was able to sign Williams and King, in particular, things began to perk up for PSU. Williams was Scout.com's No. 8 prospect overall last year, while King, who also plays some as a reserve cornerback, was No. 12.
Those four players have helped Penn State make a quantum leap offensively from last year, when PSU was among college football's worst offenses in a disappointing 4-7 season.
Comparing numbers, Penn State is averaging:
* 36.6 points per game, compared to just 17.7 a year ago;
* 224.6 yards per game rushing, compared to 129.9 a year ago;
* 232.4 yards per game passing, compared to 180.8 in 2004; and
* 457.0 yards per game total offense, compared to 310.7 a year ago.
Penn State was last in the Big Ten in scoring and total offense in 2004 – a season that saw them lose games by scores of 6-4, 14-7, 16-3, 16-7, 21-7 and 21-10 at Ohio State.
But Paterno is quick to temper the enthusiasm in Happy Valley. Yes, PSU has risen to No. 16 in this week's Associated Press poll. But the Lions cruised through nonconference wins over South Florida, Cincinnati and Central Michigan before needing a frantic late comeback to defeat Northwestern 34-29 in the Big Ten opener Sept. 24 in Evanston.
Last Saturday's demolition of then-No. 18 Minnesota ended a 12-game PSU losing streak to ranked teams, a string dating to an Oct. 5, 2002, win over then-No. 19 Wisconsin.
"I think we are better," Paterno said after the win over Minnesota. "I wouldn't get carried away yet. We have a long way to go. We have a lot of tough football games to play and we need to keep trying to get a little better in everything we are doing. I think, after a while, they will start to feel good about themselves."
As the numbers above illustrate, the Nittany Lions have improved dramatically on offense. But with PSU entering the meaty portion of the schedule – the Lions visit Michigan next week and will close with home games against Purdue and Wisconsin before traveling to Michigan State – Paterno hopes his offense can maintain balance.
"It depends on what people want to do to us," he said. "If they want to take the pass game away, they can take it away from you. Then you've got to run the ball. I hope we can have a balanced attack."
Senior Michael Robinson is the team's emotional leader and quarterback. He split time with Zack Mills the last couple of seasons, also working some at wide receiver. In fact, there was sentiment that Robinson would move to receiver full time this year so much heralded sophomore Anthony Morelli could play quarterback.
But the 6-2, 218-pound Robinson nailed down the job and has been more than effective so far this year. The dual threat quarterback has 286 yards rushing and four touchdowns on the ground to go with 1,030 yards passing and nine touchdowns through the air.
"He's getting better with each game," Paterno said. "He is a leader. He is a tough kid. He is a football player who happens to be playing quarterback. He would be a heck of a linebacker. He would be a heck of a fullback. You know he could play wideout. He has taken the bull by the horns and, as the season goes on, he will get even better."
The only downside with Robinson has been turnovers. He has thrown six interceptions and has fumbled eight times, losing four.
"He is reckless," Paterno said. "He wants to get every inch and he gets a little careless with the ball. He will get better at that."
Penn State comes into this game after rushing for 364 yards in the win over Minnesota. As noted, Robinson can be effective running the ball. The tailback is junior Tony Hunt (6-2, 224). He had 114 yards on 21 carries against Minnesota, giving him 475 yards on 70 carries (6.8 average) and three touchdowns on the year.
"He is a good, strong runner," Paterno said. "He works hard in practice. He can catch the ball. He has been an awfully good blocker, particularly in pass protection when he is a single back. I think he is a fine all-around back. He is a junior and each year he has gotten a little bit better."
Junior BranDon Snow (6-1, 241) leads the way at fullback, while Ohio native Isaac Smolko is the tight end. The 6-5, 260-pound Smolko, a fifth-year senior, has five catches for 98 yards this year, including a key fourth-down catch in the win over Northwestern.
"Smolko is a guy that I might have been on his back for two years," Paterno admitted. "I always thought he could be a much better football player than he thought he could be and right now he has gotten to be a good tight end on the verge of being better than good."
As noted, Williams (6-0, 195), King (6-0, 179), Norwood (5-10, 162) and Butler (5-10, 167) have given the offense some juice. Butler is the top receiver with 17 catches for 325 yards and four touchdowns. Williams has 15 catches for 219 yards and a touchdown to go with two rushing scores. Norwood has 10 catches, while King has two touchdowns among his three catches.
"Derrick give us a little different dimension because he has that extra step and we have got to find ways to get him the football," Paterno said. "There is no question about that."
Penn State returned all five starters on the offensive line with senior Levi Brown (6-5, 322) at left tackle, senior Charles Rush (6-2, 304) at left guard, senior E.Z. Smith (6-1, 280) at center, senior Tyler Reed (6-4, 303) at right guard and senior John Wilson (6-6, 316) at right tackle. Senior Lance Antolick (6-3, 291) has subbed in at center in place of Smith.
"I think we are getting better (on the line)," Paterno said.
As bad as the Penn State offense was a year ago, the Nittany Lions were, well, great on defense. They were fourth nationally in pass efficiency defense, fifth in scoring defense (15.3 points per game) and 10th in total defense (291.5 yards per game).
PSU welcomed back nine starters on defense and it has shown. In opening 5-0, the Lions have allowed their opponents an average of 16.6 points and 308.6 yards per game.
All four starters return up front with seniors Tamba Hali (6-3, 262) and Matthew Rice (6-4, 262) at the end positions and senior Scott Paxson (6-5, 292) and junior Jay Alford (6-3, 288) at the tackle spots. Hali leads PSU with 3-1/2 sacks, while Rice has a team-high 5-1/2 tackles-for-loss.
At linebacker, junior Paul Posluszny (6-2, 234) returns outside and sophomore Dan Connor (6-3, 200) is also back in the middle. But Connor missed the first three games as a disciplinary measure after making harassing phone calls to a former PSU program assistant.
Posluszny leads PSU with 57 tackles and also has 4-1/2 tackles-for-loss. Redshirt freshman Tyrell Sales has manned the middle in Connor's absence, while junior Tim Shaw (6-1, 234) is the other outside linebacker.
"Tim Shaw is a really good athlete," Paterno said. "We worked really hard to get him and he has turned out to be a fine football player. In some schemes, he plays inside and some schemes he plays outside."
The secondary is a veteran group, led by fourth-year starter Alan Zemaitis (6-2, 196) at cornerback. Zemaitis has seven career interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown against Ohio State two years ago. He has one pick as well this season.
Also back in the secondary are hero (strong safety) Calvin Lowry, a 6-0, 200-pound senior, and corner Anwar Phillips, a 6-1, 187-pound senior. Free safety Chris Harrell, a 6-2, 212-pound senior from Euclid, Ohio, returns after missing all of 2004 due to a neck injury. He started most of the 2002 and '03 seasons.
Junior Jeremy Kapinos averages 41.3 yards as the punter, placing eight of his 17 punts down inside the 20. Freshman Kevin Kelly handles the kicking duties. He is 8 of 10 on field goals with a long kick of 47 yards.
* Paterno's place in history is set. His 348 career wins place him fourth on college football's all-time wins list. He trails only Florida State's Bobby Bowden as the Division I-A career leader.
Paterno actually passed previous I-A leader Paul "Bear" Bryant with PSU's 2001 win over Ohio State, only to see Bowden later move past him.
Paterno has had five perfect seasons as the PSU coach and a pair of national championships, 1982 and 1986.
* It was believed that Penn State would contend most every year for the Big Ten championship, but it has not quite worked out that way.
The Lions latched on as the Big Ten's 11th member in 1993, finishing third in the conference race that year. In 1994, PSU was a perfect 12-0 and won its only Big Ten title and also defeated Oregon in the Rose Bowl. But the Lions finished second to Nebraska in the national championship race.
Since then, PSU's best Big Ten finish was second in 1997. PSU managed just three Big Ten wins over the last two years, finishing ninth each year.
* As amazing as it may seem, Penn State has the nation's third-longest current active win streak with seven wins. USC is tops with 26, while Texas has won 11 straight. PSU wrapped up 2004 with wins over Indiana and Michigan State, setting the stage for this year's fast start.
* Ohio State will be PSU's highest ranked home opponent since the Lions hosted No. 2 Miami (Fla.) in 2001. PSU's last win over a top-10 team came in 2002, when the Lions dusted then-No. 8 Nebraska 40-7.
* This game matches two of the top 10 winningest programs in college football history. OSU is sixth on the all-time wins list with 767, while PSU is seventh with 765.
* Ten PSU players hail from Ohio. In addition to Harrell and Smolko, other Ohio products on the PSU roster include OL Gerald Cadogan, QB Daryll Clark, DB Paul Cronin, CB Tony Davis, DE Jed Hill, CB Donnie Johnson, OG Robert Price and FB Adam Senk.
* Penn State is 4-4 all-time in home night games.
* OSU is 17-6 against ranked teams under Jim Tressel, including 1-1 this year.
* For a complete look at the history surrounding the 20-game series between Ohio State and Penn State, click the link below:
* For a complete look at the Game Data (depth charts, predictions) for this game, click the link below: