Shooting For No. 400

Joe Paterno may be downplaying the milestone. But his players realize the magnitude of the pending accomplishment and hope to get it this weekend.

Penn State wide receiver Brett Brackett found a game program from last Saturday's meeting with Michigan lying around the Nittany Lions' locker room Monday, and as he thumbed through it he came upon a story noting that the two schools are among the winningest in college football history.

Michigan is in fact No. 1, with 882 victories, while PSU is fifth, with 816.

Brackett thought about that for a moment. In particular he thought about how Joe Paterno has been the head coach for nearly half of the games Penn State has won.

It is, the senior co-captain said, “pretty amazing.”

Paterno goes for No. 400 today, when the Lions (2-2 Big Ten, 5-3 overall) host Northwestern (2-2, 6-2). Brackett said the veteran coach, who is in his 45th season, has been downplaying the milestone with his players, instead emphasizing how much a victory will mean to this team, right now -- how it will be their sixth of the year, and make them bowl-eligible.

But everyone realizes the enormity of such an accomplishment. As Brackett said, “When you look back in 20 years, it will be pretty amazing to be a part of that.”

“It is,” added sophomore defensive end Pete Massaro, “an incredible feat on his part. It's something we're all looking forward to cherishing, if it comes this weekend.”

Still to be determined is the identity of the starting quarterback. Paterno said during his weekly news conference Tuesday that he will let Matt McGloin and Rob Bolden battle it out in practice, then name a starter later in the week.

Bolden started the season's first seven games before suffering a concussion against Minnesota. McGloin picked up for him in that game, and then started against the Wolverines, going 17-for-28 for 250 yards and a touchdown in the 41-31 victory. He also ran for a TD.

Brackett said during a conference call with reporters Wednesday that both guys have been getting the same number of practice repetitions with first team, and he has “no idea” who the starter will be, come Saturday.

“I wish I could tell you,” he said.

What Brackett could say is that he is somewhat surprised the 83-year-old Paterno is still his head coach.

While he was being recruited out of Lawrenceville, N.J., Brackett said, “I did not think at all he was still going to be there. It's a funny thing talking to the young guys -- they're thinking the same things I was thinking. He has always said he would be coaching as many years as he possibly can. I'm kind of surprised, to say the least, he's still here. But obviously I'm very happy.”

As Massaro said, “He's got a passion for the game, simple as that. That's keeping him going, and keeping him young, as old as he is.”

Massaro said that during recruitment out of Newtown Square, Pa., he was “not at all” deterred by the possibility that Paterno might retire at some point during his college career.

“To get a chance to play for one of the greatest coaching legends of all time, you jump at that opportunity,” Massaro said, “no matter what the future may look like.”

Brackett didn't quite put it that way, but he did believe that if Paterno were to leave while he was on campus, someone else -- “someone of the same caliber, or someone in the program” -- would pick up the slack.

“And,” Brackett said, “things would be the way they are.”

Massaro described Paterno as “a nice and personable guy” during his recruitment. And when asked to contrast that person with the one he sees at practice every day, Massaro did not flinch.

“One of the parts of being a coach is you've got to be on your players, and you've got to be tough with them,” he said. “One on one, he acts like a regular guy. He's humble. He's funny. He's a great person to be around.”

• Massaro said injured defensive ends Jack Crawford (foot) and Eric Latimore (wrist) have returned to practice this week. And, he said, “I definitely think they could both go” against Northwestern.

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