Ten Years in the Big10 - Part 5

The fourth installment in a series of articles through which Marsh Creek takes a look at Penn State's experience in the Big Ten Conference.<br><br>(AP Photo/Paul Vathis)

As 1996 turned into 1997 there was a sense of optimism at Penn State that we hadn't seen since 1994. Talk was that the team might be selected as a pre-season number 1 in the polls, and that actually happened when Sports Illustrated put Joe Jurevicius on it's cover issue that year.
I recall a number of pundits talking about guys like Enis, Jurevicius, a senior-laden defense, and all the big uglies we had recruited on our offensive line in the previous recruiting seasons, but there were still question marks. Those question marks were largely overlooked when the first AP poll came out with Penn State ranked #2 behind Florida, but they were simmering under the surface.
Penn State had lost relatively little starpower to graduation in Kim Herring, Wally Richardson, and Brett Conway. While all three of those players were all Big10 caliber players, some thought QB Mike McQueary would be as good or better than Richardson.
Penn State returned some star power too. RB Curt Enis was probably the brightest star in our universe entering 1997, but WR Joe Jurevicius and FB Aaron Harris were looking pretty bright as well.
But there were still unanswered questions on the offensive line. As I noted above, those questions were largely ignored in the preseason hype, in hindsight maybe they shouldn't have been.
Penn State had to replace four departed seniors on their new offensive line in 1997, and none of those graduated players were NFL draft picks. Much of the anticipation for 1997 stemmed from the sheer size of some of the newcomers.
Penn State would start out the 1997 season with first year starter Rich Stankiewicz at center, Phil Ostrowski returning at OG, first year starter Eric Cole at the other guard spot, and a pair of first year starters at tackle in John Blick and Ryan Fagan. True, Blick had started one game as a true freshman the year before, but in 1997 he'd be counted on to start every game.
Guys like Kevin Conlin, the younger brother of Keith Conlin, Chance Bright, Lewe Sessions, Gabe Tincher, Basim Grant, and Floyd Wedderburn would be counted on to provide depth. Incoming freshmen like Jason Bisson, Jordan Caruso, Joe Hartings, the younger brother of Jeff Hartings, Kareem McKenzie, Josh Mitchell, Greg Ransom, and Chad Stoffer would round out the deeper depth chart spots.
Of the above, linemen like John Blick and Floyd Wedderburn were national recruits, but the others being counted on in 1997 were largely the same types of regional recruits Penn State had thrived with for years. But this group would under perform somewhat. Ostrowski would turn out to be our best lineman in 1997 by a healthy margin, and he would make it into the NFL. Blick always seemed in the doghouse due to weight issues, and Wedderburn still showed the effects of a torn ACL he had suffered earlier in his career.
Kevin Conlin and Joe Hartings would turn out to be nice players and great students, but never the dominating players their older siblings had become at Penn State. McKenzie and Caruso were national recruits. McKenzie would later play his way into the NFL, Caruso would not. None of the others would come close.
To give you a real good idea of where Penn State was headed with this group of offensive linemen, let's take a close look at the NFL draft. Take a good long look at the chart below. Note: I selected 240 players as a limit in this chart because the 1997 thru 2002 time frame has approximately that number of draft selections.
Penn State players drafted in top 240 picks in NFL drafts 1979 thru 1984 (a 6 year time frame)
43 players taken in total
14 players selected in the top 50 picks
18 players selected in the top 75 picks
10 offensive linemen selected
10 offensive linemen taken in the top 122 picks
7  offensive linemen taken in first 58 selections
Penn State players drafted in top 240 picks in NFL drafts 1985 thru 1990 (a 6 year time frame)
28 players taken in total
5  players selected in the top 50 picks
6  players selected in the top 75 picks
8  offensive linemen selected
Penn State players drafted in top 240 picks in NFL drafts 1991 thru 1996 (a 6 year time frame)
38 players taken in total
9   players selected in the top 50 picks (plus one at #51 and one at #52)
15 players selected in the top 75 picks
8  offensive linemen selected
Penn State players drafted in top 240 picks in NFL drafts 1997 thru 2002 (a 6 year time frame)
18 players taken in total
3   players selected in the top 50 picks (at #1, #2, and #5)
6  players selected in the top 75 picks
3  offensive linemen selected - one at #79, one at #140, and one at #151
What is evident by these charts is that the general talent level at Penn State between the 1996 season that preceded the 1997 draft and the 2001 season that preceded the 2002 draft was far less than it had been in prior similar periods of time, and that the number of future NFL caliber offensive linemen was equally less than in past similar periods of time.
Penn State played those six years with roughly 40% of the normal number of future NFL caliber offensive linemen that they had been accustomed to over the years. Given that Michigan and Ohio State were playing with their greatest output of NFL players in their respective histories (this is a true fact), it's easy to see how we have lost more than we have won against these teams in those years. It's almost amazing that, despite all of this, Penn State is still within 2 games of Michigan since we entered Big10 play.
Here is the big question - why did this happen? I have a theory.
In Penn State's first Big10 game against Michigan or Ohio State we saw the game turn against us when Michigan stopped Penn State four straight times from the one yard line. Joe Paterno had always felt that if you couldn't get one yard you probably didn't deserve that yard, so naturally one might conclude he felt Michigan was just better on that series of downs.
I think Michigan was better on that set of downs too, but for a different reason. I think they were better mainly because we tried to go up the middle four straight times against a pair of 300lbs. defensive tackles wearing Maize and Blue. That, in my view, was poor play calling. This would become a trend with Michigan.
Combine that 1993 goal line stand against Michigan where Penn State was stuffed with what Ohio State was doing with really big men like Korey Stringer, Bid Daddy Dan Wilkinson, and Orlando Pace and you have the impetus for Penn State feeling the need to go big. There was only one problem, Penn State had always taken linemen in the 260lbs. to 280lbs. range out of high school and had scant experience recruiting 300lbs.+ jumbo linemen. But that's the direction they suddenly started going in 1994 and beyond.
In addition to huge guys like Basim Grant and Floyd Wedderburn, you have the merely big guys like Gabe Tincher, and then much smaller men like Joe Hartings, Lewe Sessions,  and Kevin Conlin. Then you have the following list of offensive linemen:

Imani Bell

6'4" 295lbs

John Blick

6'7" 310lbs

Chance Bright

6' 8" 315lbs

Karel Smith

6' 3" 285lbs

Jason Bisson

6'8" 315lbs

Jordan Caruso

6'5" 305lbs

Joe Hartings

6'5" 255lbs

Kareem McKenzie

6'7" 330lbs

Josh Mitchell

6'5" 275lbs

Greg Ransom

6'3" 310lbs

Chad Stoffer

6'7" 315lbs

Gus Felder

6'5" 315lbs

Keith Jenkins

6'5" 310lbs

Tyler Lenda

6'4" 255lbs

Eric Rickenbach

6'5" 300lbs.

Matt Schmitt

6'5" 290lbs

Tyler Valoszki

6'5" 305lbs

Damone Jones

6'5" 310lbs

Dave Costlow

6'4" 255lbs

In fairness to the staff, we saw a few injuries to guys like Karel Smith and Floyd Wedderburn. Wedderburn eventually made it into the NFL, but he required a long time to develop after sustaining a major knee injury. Smith not only played as a true freshman, but he looked good in the process. His career was ended due to a back injury.
On balance,  we had a period of time where the staff, trying to get much larger guys on the whole, had a difficult time evaluating this type of player. That difficulty led to the recruitment of some players that were not of the highest caliber we were once accustomed to here at Penn State. This is the only explanation that seems to fit the path taken by the staff.
I'm not out to knock these kids, but rather to explain how you go from having a lot of high draft picks on your offensive line to having just a few lower round selections, and this is my best guess as to how I think it happened.
Back to 1997, you can see where we were bound to eventually have some problems that year. They wouldn't be limited to the offensive line either. The defensive front four would have it's share of troubles too.
Penn State would play Courtney Brown, Chris Snyder and Justin Kurpeikis at the DE spots in 1997. Brown was still a little raw, but he had tremendous athleticism and potential. Kurpeikis was in the 230lbs range at the time and Snyder was a little bigger than that. Brad Scioli had moved over to the TE spot that year.
Matt Fornadel, Mike Buzin, David Fleischauer and Bob Jones would all see time at DT in 1997. Fornadel played almost all of the time, and by years end true freshman Bob Jones seemed to get the lions share of playing time aside him.
Penn State had a ton of good linebackers that year. Brandon Short was manning the MLB spot in the first of three straight years he would start and call plays for the Penn State defense. Maurice Daniels backed up Short in the middle. Aaron Collins and Jim Nelson started at the OLB spots and played almost all of the minutes. Mac Morrison and Eric Sturdifen would spell the starters for brief stretches of time when needed.
Shawn Lee and Jason Collins manned the safety spots with guys like Derek Fox, Askari Adams and true freshman Lavar Arrington getting minor back up duty. David Macklin, Anthony King and Shino Prater were the corners.
Penn State opened the year at home against Pittsburgh and their new head man Walt Harris and drubbed the Panthers in a game that was not as close as the 34-17 final score might indicate. QB Mike McQueary went wild that day throwing for more than 360 yards and 3 TD's.
In the following weeks Penn State would club Temple at home before waxing overmatched Louisville and Illinois on the road. In 4 games Penn State had outscored it's overmatched opposition by a 184 to 54 count.
The Lions looked pretty strong at this point, but we hadn't really played a good football team just yet. That would all change when Ohio State came to town on October 11th for a late afternoon game. The weather was just incredible that day as the leaves were really starting to show their colors and the temperatures were still warm. It was a beautiful Indian Summer afternoon in Central Pennsylvania.
Ohio State, like Penn State, was unbeaten entering the contest. Buckeye fans were coming off an unbelievable 1996 campaign and I'm not sure many of them knew what they had in 1997. They would finish the year at 10-3, but they were 5-0 at the time and had a couple dozen future NFL draft picks on the field that day. Guys like Joe Germaine, David Boston, Dee Miller, Andy Katzenmoyer, Na'il Diggs, Ahmed Plummer, Antoine Winfield, Gary Berry, Damon Moore, Michael Wiley and Joe Montgomery.
Joe Germaine threw for over 400 yards that day, but Penn State prevailed on the strength of an incredible rushing effort from Curt Enis and Aaron Harris. Just when things were starting to look bleak at 27-17 in favor of Ohio State, Harris had one of the greatest all time running plays in Penn State history as he careened off of 10 of the 11 Buckeye defenders on the final play of the 3rd quarter. Players like Katzenmoyer, Winfield, Plummer and Moore all touched him on that play, yet none could bring him down. 51 yards later he had brought Penn State back to within 3 points at 27-24, and the momentum which had been all Ohio State at that point suddenly tilted back to Penn State.
Penn State would score once more and Beaver Stadium would turn the loudest pre-expansion crowd I had ever heard loose on the Ohio State offense. The Buckeyes were unable to answer back and Penn State left Beaver Stadium with a big win - and more! The Florida Gators were 28-21 losers at LSU that day and the Penn State Nittany Lions had vaulted to the very top of the polls!
The glory would be short lived.
In the following two weeks Penn State just did not look very good. First came Minnesota at home. The Gophers were a poor team that would finish 3-9 on the year, but not before they scared the daylights out of Penn State in a 16-15 loss. They had the Nits on the ropes all day long before finally succumbing. Aaron Harris would suffer one of the worst ACL injuries I have seen at Penn State and our pride would take a beating as well.
The next game saw Northwestern challenge Penn State before bowing out 30-27. This is a game that really showed we had some problems. It was the worst kind of game to have the week before playing unbeaten Michigan. It portended things to come.
On October 8, 1997 Michigan trounced Penn State in Beaver Stadium by a 34-8 count. The Wolvies jumped us early and never looked back. Michigan vaulted to #2 in the polls and Penn State fell sharply, and deservedly so.
Penn State bounced back the following week beating a pretty good Purdue team 42-17 and things appeared to look right again. One week later Penn State totally dismantled Wisconsin in Beaver Stadium by a 35-10 count and things looked even better. But looks can be deceiving.
On the eve of our final game of the year some of our players were tired and spent. The Wisconsin game, although a big win, took it's toll on some of the linemen. The team was weary and it showed in the season finale against Michigan State. Penn State was unable to run the ball that day, and it was unable to defend the run as well. Michigan State saw two different tailbacks get 200 yards on us that day. It was a running game defensive meltdown for the ages.
In 60 minutes of defensive futility, Penn State went from a BCS bid to the Outback Bowl against Florida.
The offseason before the bowl game brought on even more problems. WR Joe Jurevicius was dismissed from the team for academic reasons. Then Curt Enis was dismissed for accepting money from an agent for a suit he purchased in a Harrisburgh area mall. This even led to the Pennsylvania State House passing a new law banning agents on college campus' in Pennsylvania, but it was too little too late to salvage Enis' career at Penn State.
Curt Enis would become a top 5 pick in the April 1998 NFL draft, but his absence, and that of Jurevicius as well, helped contribute to a 21-6 New Year's Day loss to Florida. After what had been a promising start, Penn State finished the season at 9-3 and out of the top 10.
Curt Enis, Joe Jurevicius and Phil Ostrowski went in the following NFL draft, and new players like Lavar Arrington would join Brandon Short and Courtney Brown to form what looked like a very good defense coming back in 1998.

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