Seems Like Old Times For PSU

NEIL RUDEL AT THE GAME: After a rough start, Joe Paterno and his Nittany Lions experience a happy Homecoming, beating Purdue 33-15 and setting the stage for a November that could end in a Big Ten championship.

Joe Paterno settled into his post-game chair with more of a creaky groan than usual.

"I'm not getting old," he said, forcing a grin. "I got run over during pre-game warmups. One of those big linemen [Jim Shaw] knocked me right smack on my rear end. I've got a sore knee and a shoulder. Other than that, I'm great."

Better than he's been since the turn of the century.

The Nittany Lions continued their resurgence Saturday afternoon by beating Purdue, 33-15, before a happy Homecoming crowd of 109,467.

The victory was not overly impressive except for its bottom line: Penn State elevated to 8-1 overall and 5-1 in the Big Ten heading into Saturday's game with Wisconsin that will keep conference title hopes alive for the winner.

Paterno was asked what Homecoming meant to him, and he got a little nostalgic.

Lenny Moore, maybe the best player he ever coached, was on campus this weekend, and Curt Warner, who played a huge role in the Lions' first national championship in 1982, addressed the team Friday.

Paterno talked about visiting with other former players, such as longtime NFL offensive lineman Dave Szott, and meeting their children. He joked about how he and Szott "used to go at it all the time."

"You always feel good that they want to talk about their experiences from when they were here," he said.

To that end, Saturday's performance was fittingly a little nostalgic: Paterno made a career out of winning without being overly flashy.

Penn State may not have a great offensive team this year, but the Lions run as hard as ever. Tony Hunt may not have the shiftiness of Moore or Warner, but he finishes runs and churns for every possible inch as well as they ever did.

Michael Robinson's running ability is the perfect complement; he and Hunt combined for 225 yards on the ground.

Galen Hall's spread-the-field reverse game brought another 73 yards on five carries by Justin King and Jordan Norwood.

That compensated for a passing game in which Robinson, Paterno admitted, "was not as sharp as he's been."

The Lion defense did the rest. Save for momentarily hanging its head from Calvin Lowry's fumbled punt that set Purdue up at the Nit 24, Penn State's defense allowed one touchdown against one of the Big Ten's better offenses.

"We know," outspoken cornerback Alan Zemaitis said, "we could have beaten them 50-0."

That's a stretch, considering the Boilermakers were within 23-15 with six minutes to play, prompting Paterno -- a tad more conservative than Zemaitis -- to suggest, "we let them hang around and hang around. I thought, 'we are going to blow this one.' "

The defense wouldn't allow it, forcing Purdue into 11 punts and a 2-of-14 third-down conversion rate, and the offense kept the ball for 38 minutes.

What's unique about this Penn State team is its balance. The running game picked up the passing game Saturday, and the defense picked up the offense.

It's happened all year.

"I don't know if we're closer than we've been in the last couple years, but we definitely have more confidence in each other," Robinson said. "We know our defense will make things happen, and our defense knows our offense will make things happen."

The offense bailed out the defense at Northwestern and vice versa against Ohio State. The offense did its part at Michigan only to watch the special teams and defense fail in the clutch.

And yet, following two straight Homecoming losses, two straight losing seasons and a general Y2K malfunction, just about everybody in the PSU camp is reasonably satisfied with where the Lions are as the calendar turns to November.

"It feels great," linebacker Paul Posluszny said. "It's unbelievable we are in this position. This is exactly where we wanted to be at the beginning of the year."

It turns out the Lions are a game, a decision and a play away from being a candidate for a possible appearance in the national championship game.

"We wanted to be 9-0," Posluszny said, "but we're in good position right now."

With two monster games left -- the always-physical challenge Wisconsin poses and a regular-season ending trip to Michigan State -- what began as reinforcement of a coach and his program now has a chance to be a special season.

That's why, as he limped off his press-conference stage Saturday, JoePa was feeling no pain.

FightOnState contributor Neil Rudel covers Penn State football for the Altoona Mirror.

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