Hit the Ground Running

Fullback Zordich says getting "mean" is a key to improving Penn State's struggling rushing attack. Minnesota appears to be a good opponent against which to test that theory.

Penn State fullback Michael Zordich talked hopefully on Wednesday about the effects of the bye week on the Nittany Lions' sagging fortunes.

How the players-only meetings that were held buoyed all concerned.

How the gauntlet laid by Joe Paterno in practice toughened everybody up.

How the emphasis placed on reviving the running game will surely have a big impact.

But the thing that might help most of all is the get-well gift passed along by the Big Ten schedule-maker -- a road game Saturday against a Minnesota team that might be even more of a mess than the Lions are.

The Gophers (0-3 conference, 1-6 overall) have dropped six straight games since opening their season with a victory over Middle Tennessee State. And after last week's defeat at Purdue coach Tim Brewster was fired and replaced by assistant Jeff Horton.

It is, Zordich said, “an absolute must-win game” for PSU (0-2, 3-3), which has lost two straight -- the most recent a 33-13 Homecoming embarrassment to Illinois on Oct. 9.

“Right now we're .500,” he said. “We have to get things rolling.”

At the same time Zordich sounded a note of caution, saying that a team like Minnesota can be “kind of scary,” since the Lions have no idea how the Gophers might respond to the coaching change.

“They might come out all fired up,” he said. “We have to come out even more ready.”

Certainly the Lions can't afford to be complacent, given all their troubles. And statistically this stacks up as the resistible force meeting the movable object.

Minnesota has allowed 222 points, more than anybody else in the conference. Penn State has scored 109, fewer than any of its Big Ten brethren.

The Gophers are also last in the conference in rushing defense and pass-efficiency defense, but the Lions' offense is 10th and ninth in those two categories, respectively.

Finally, Minnesota is next-to-last in total defense, allowing 414.3 yards a game. But sure enough, PSU is last in total offense, at 335.2 a game.

In other words, it figures to be a real tractor pull in the Midwest this weekend.

Zordich refuses to believe that the offense's youth has been the issue.

“We haven't taken advantage of opportunities,” he said. “We have to overcome what comes at us and just play -- make the plays and go on from there.”

Paterno said Tuesday he had challenged his players, something Zordich confirmed.

“He told us we haven't been good enough,” he said. “He put us against each other. There was a lot of competition last week, a lot of guys fighting for jobs.”

And a lot of offense-defense matchups.

“By doing that,” Zordich said, “he got a lot of fire out of us, and we had a very good week.”

There was particular emphasis on a running game that is averaging a paltry 126 yards per outing. Zordich said much of that centered on technique, but not all of it.

“A lot of it is attitude, too,” he said. “We just need to be mean up front.”

And finally, there were those players-only gatherings, in which, Zordich said, everybody said what needed to be said, “in the way we do it -- which is a little different than the way the coaches do it.”

The one thing that came out, he said, is that everybody needs to play with more passion, more enthusiasm. As he put it, the Lions need to “get back that little kid in us.”

At the same time, he acknowledged that it all gets back to making plays. That the more that happens, the more enthusiastic everyone will become.

“We haven't been making the big plays Penn State usually makes,” he said.

Zordich has talked with his dad, also Michael, who played safety at Penn State for 1982-85 and is now an assistant coach for the Philadelphia Eagles. The elder Zordich mentioned the struggles of his sophomore year, 1984. The Lions went 6-5 that season, and after they finished up with back-to-back blowout losses to Notre Dame and Pitt, Paterno referred to them as “a bunch of babies.”

So what, pray tell, does the elder Zordich advise now?

“He told me we've got to keep grinding,” the younger Zordich said. “We've got to keep fighting.”

As the Lions of his dad's era did. They were 11-1 in 1985, 12-0 and national champions in '86.

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