Lions Anxious to do Talking on Field

CHICAGO — If Penn State's dream scenario this fall is to lay low then sneak up on its unsuspecting Big Ten rivals, the team is off to a strong start. The Nittany Lions couldn't have laid any lower than they did at the league's football media summit.

The Lions garnered little attention on the first day of the two-day gathering. They weren't among the three favorites in a poll of media attendees, nor were they represented when the preseason offensive and defensive players of year were named. What's more, Joe Paterno was absent when the coaches took their turns at the podium. Paterno decided to skip the first day of the proceedings to stay home with his wife, Sue, who is recovering from a broken leg.

While Paterno's absence may have caught some off-guard, the team's failure to garner any preseason accolades did not. After going 3-13 in conference play over the past two seasons, the Nittany Lions didn't have to think long or hard about the reasons behind their snub.

“It's definitely a result of what's happened the past couple of years,” senior quarterback Michael Robinson said. “We have to prove ourselves. We have a great defense coming back, but on offense we have to prove some things to people.”

They will have to prove it against the likes of Michigan, which reappears on the schedule after a two-year absence, and Ohio State.

The Wolverines were picked to win the conference, while the Buckeyes, who are led by preseason defensive player of the year A.J. Hawk, came in second in the survey. Iowa, which rotates off the Nittany Lions' schedule, was picked to finish third, though few would be surprised to see preseason offensive player of the year Drew Tate lead the Hawkeyes to another conference crown after helping lift them to a 10-2 record in his first season as starting quarterback.

Football media day inspired the usual platitudes about how anyone can win the title, how any number of teams could end up in the Rose Bowl, which will play host to the BCS championship game Jan. 4. In addition to Michigan, Ohio State and Iowa, the list of legitimate contenders includes Purdue. The Boilermakers return a league-high 20 starters. In addition, Joe Tiller received the scheduling break of a lifetime when league officials removed the Wolverines and Buckeyes from his slate until 2007. Said the ninth-year coach: “We've got Ohio State and Michigan right where we want them.”

Some of the most compelling Big Ten storylines this year involve teams that aren't expected to challenge for the league title.

At Wisconsin, Barry Alvarez last week announced plans to step down after the 2005 season, his 16th in Madison. Alvarez turned around a program that had suffered six consecutive losing seasons before his arrival, guiding the Badgers to three Rose Bowl victories. His successor has already been named, with second-year defensive coordinator Bret Bielema set to replace him.

Alvarez, who will remain the school's athletic director, said he announced his decision in July order to minimize disruption. He said if he had waited until the end of the season to reveal his plans it would have hurt the Badgers' on letter-of-intent day.

“I felt comfortable with my successor and I didn't want him to lose a year of recruiting,” Alvarez said. “And [the preseason announcement] gave me time to talk to the players so it's not a distraction to them.”

While Alvarez is preparing for one last season, two other coaches are set to launch their Big Ten careers.

Former Florida coach Ron Zook is taking over at Illinois. The Fighting Illini have won just seven Big Ten games since going to the Sugar Bowl in 2001. But in Zook, they have a prominent name with roots in the Midwest. Zook grew up in Ohio, attended Miami of Ohio and was an assistant coach at Ohio State. He cited the Illini basketball team, which reached the NCAA championship game in April, as an inspirational role model.

“There's no reason our football program can't go the same way,” he said.

New Indiana coach Terry Hoeppner out-gushed even Zook in his appearance at the podium. An Indiana native and lifelong Hoosiers fan, Hoeppner was hired away from Miami of Ohio, where he groomed Ben Roethlisberger for NFL stardom. Declaring that “Hoosier nation is hungry,” he said he was eager to start coaching after spending much of his spring and summer stumping for the program at alumni gatherings. He downplayed Indiana's troubled history, which includes 10 consecutive losing seasons, and dismissed talk that basketball will always overshadow football in Bloomington.

“Indiana is a great university,” Hoeppner said. “It's a sleeping giant, and I believe we can wake it up. I truly believe we can get it done.”

Robinson said he believes Penn State can do likewise. It's a belief Paterno has tried to instill in all his players in the off-season.

“Coach Paterno tells us all the time that there isn't a team on our schedule that physically we can't play with,” Robinson said. “It just comes down to making plays in key situations and big players showing up, myself included. We have to show up in big games and go out and prove ourselves.”

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