State's Distance From Success

At no point in time and space does a simple dichotomy exist. The positives are weighed against the negatives, but the side that lends more decisive emphasis is rarely clear. If in fact one of the many demonstratives that weave the mirage of Joe Paterno is a dichotomy, then this one is more indistinct than ever.

Perhaps if his wife Sue offered a "This is Your Life" revelry in December of 1999, flattery would be left at the front door in favor of worship. At that juncture of the legend's career, two national titles and a few more that should have been recognized as such were credited to his name.

But in the last half-decade, scrutiny has followed Paterno from those close to the program who concurrently experienced Penn State's unexpected downward spiral. Following that 10-3 season which could have been much more, the Nittany Lions finished in the red four times over the next five years.

The argument can be made that since the turn of the millennium, Paterno has simply become a grumpy old man. At his age, most men worry about Medicare coverage rather than a two-deep zone coverage. Detractors who watched Paterno chase down a referee in 2002 declared not only a final straw, but also a bitter stamp on a rudderless endgame that threatened to destroy all that he had built.

Because of the manner in which Penn State accumulated its groovy conference record of 16-24 between 2000 and 2004, the supposed revised rigor (or does he use vigor?) that the living legend claimed to have found in August was not without fear. Only 11 days out of 365, make that 12 starting in 2006, or three percent of a Penn State fan's annual calendar is spent watching live action. And you'd better believe that the other 97 percent is consumed by pondering how and if a man who prefers plain jerseys in an age of glitz could renovate this once-great engine.

The truth is — talent or not, excuses or not, coaching defections or not, recruiting struggles or not — if certain plays and players had been maneuvered properly, State probably could have avoided three of those four losing seasons that turned most of Nittany Nation against its leader. No longer were "they're working haaaad" (that's Brooklynese for "hard"), and "we have a chance to be a good football team," or the ever popular "we have some people who can do some things" acceptable.

We have some people who can do some things. We have some people who can do some things. We have some people who can do some things. Nope. Still don't get it.

The line is not fine between the believers and those who cannot wait until a new regime begins. The viewpoint of the latter is hardly shared by other programs that are not at all sorry for Paterno. After all, the human heart naturally loves when the chip-leader falls from grace.

It is not so much a lack of respect, but a lack of fear. Visiting teams that were accustomed to hearing horror stories about playing in Beaver Stadium suddenly found it to be friendly grounds. Just ask Kirk Ferentz, whose actions on Oct. 23, 2004 put the final nail in the coffin for a division of Penn State fans who refused to stomach the agony any longer.

Holding a 6-2 lead with eight minutes remaining in regulation, Ferentz opted to give Paterno two points AND the ball back because he knew that the Lions could not produce one offensive point.

That needs to be repeated.

In a sanctioned Big Ten game on the road in front of 107,000 hostile fans, a visiting coach was so certain that Penn State would not score a single offensive point that he did the following: directed his punter to purposely take a safety that gave State two points — thus allowing PSU to get within two points so that a field goal would put it ahead — and possession of the football. That happened all on one play and with eight minutes to play in the fourth quarter. That is absolutely, positively, certifiably outrageous and embarrassing for one of college football's all-time best programs. Forget trying to argue that Ferentz did it to avoid a blocked kick. Go sell that up the street. Anyone following the ebb and flow of that game knew that was not in the cards.

Hold on just a moment, though.

The y-intercept on that dichotometic line is itching to be heard. Perhaps a speck of negotiating room exists here. Paterno has stated on numerous occasions that with a few correct decisions by referees here and there that those seasons could and would have turned out differently. While any team in college football could lay that claim as well, for a luminary like Paterno, further examination is warranted.

Even Paterno's harshest critics should at least try on the facts for size before eschewing them. And since he has likely reached a point at which he will not publicly speak on the issue any further, someone has got to do it for him; not to defend, but to circulate the realities of a series of events that can no longer be simply disregarded.

Before the most recent tribulations, it is important to lay the groundwork. To be kind, remove the 2000 season as a complete disaster. The following year's finale against Virginia could have put PSU in a bowl game with a victory. Of course, 6-5 and a December bowl are not common with this program, but the extra practices and a modest holiday financial bonus never hurts.

In the third quarter, Penn State held a double-digit lead and was in position to push the advantage further inside the UVA 10-yard line. Quarterback Zack Mills scrambled to his left, fumbled the football and Art Thomas scampered 92 yards the other way for a touchdown.

Fact: Replays clearly showed that Mills' knee hit the ground before the ball was dislodged.

Supposition: If the correct call had been made, Penn State most likely gets into the end zone for a big lead, holds on for the win and competes in a bowl game.

Result: The play completely changed the game's complexion and State fell apart in a 20-14 loss.

The temporary resurgence that was the 2002 campaign started off better than expected with a blowout win over Nebraska, but in the conference opener against Iowa an exciting comeback was thwarted. Following a Hawkeye touchdown on the first overtime series, State faced a 2nd-and-9 from the 8-yard line. A pass to Tony Johnson along the sideline was ruled incomplete.

Fact: Replays clearly showed that Johnson's foot was inbounds.

Supposition: If the correct call had been made, Penn State prolongs the overtime period by scoring from near the goal line and eventually uses the momentum from its earlier comeback and the home crowd to pull out a victory.

Result: The drive stalled, Iowa won and Paterno was caught on tape chasing down a referee.

Several weeks later, Johnson found himself at the center of another incorrect ruling, only this one was more profound. Penn State and Michigan were tied 21-21 with less than three minutes remaining in the fourth quarter at Michigan Stadium. The Nittany Lions faced a 3rd-and-five near midfield before a 21-yard pass attempt from Mills to Johnson was ruled incomplete along the left sideline.

Fact: Replays clearly showed that both of Johnson's feet landed inbounds.

Supposition: If the correct call had been made, the result of the play gives State great field position and one short carry by Larry Johnson sets up a game-winning field goal.

Result: The contest went into overtime before Michigan plowed into the end zone for a 27-24 victory.

In 2003, the Nittany Lions entered their conference slate at home against Minnesota. With under a minute to play in the first half, the Lions had erased an earlier deficit and climbed to within 17-14 led by Michael Robinson, who was filling in for an injured Mills. Robinson led State down to the Minnesota 11-yard line and with 10 seconds to play before halftime, his third down pass was ruled an interception.

Fact: Replays clearly showed that the ball hit the ground and should have been an incompletion.

Supposition: If the correct call had been made, State's chip shot field goal on the next play creates a 17-17 deadlock. On the final drive of the game — when State failed to get into the end zone as time expired — only a field goal would have been needed to force overtime rather than a touchdown to win.

Result: Minnesota extended its love affair with Beaver Stadium courtesy of its 20-14 victory.

Later in the 2003 season, as October became November, the defending national champion Ohio State Buckeyes rolled into town and trailed the Nits 20-14 late in the fourth quarter. The upset was in the air, but someone forgot to tell the zebras. OSU started its final drive with less than six minutes to play and backup signal-caller Scott McMullen was under center.

After Maurice Hall carried into the pile for a one-yard loss, OSU faced a 3rd-and-3 from the Penn State 39-yard line. McMullen then passed to tight end Ben Hartstock, who officially caught a four-yard pass for a first down.

Fact: Replays clearly showed that the ball bounced off the turf and back up into Hartstock's hands.

Supposition: If the correct call had been made, the drive is forced into submission on fourth down and PSU holds on for the win.

Result: McMullen found Michael Jenkins in the corner of the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown and, after David Kimball's 60-yard prayer fell short, the Bucs escape with a 21-20 victory.

Even though 2004 was another dismal season, perhaps the most important issue surrounding it was the implementation of instant replay in the Big Ten. The aforementioned play involving Tony Johnson against the Wolverines is widely known as a key factor in Paterno's motivation to lobby for it. And as luck would have it, three years later on that same field, the replay issue came to the forefront near the conclusion of Penn State's most important game in years.

The combination of two speedy freshmen and the release of the offensive playbook to Galen Hall helped put the Lions back in the national picture and they brought a 6-0 record into Ann Arbor. Following along with the common theme, late in the fourth quarter Penn State held a 25-21 lead and was 50-plus seconds from ending a six-game losing streak to the Wolverines.

Quarterback Chad Henne threw a pass to Jason Avant along the right sideline and the play was ruled a 17-yard completion to set up a first down at the Penn State 36-yard line.

Fact: Replays clearly showed that the back portion of Avant's foot came down on the white chalk.

Supposition: In the final minute, the replay official reviews any close play that involves a catch along the sideline.

Result: The play gave Michigan key yards on its final drive, which resulted in a last-second, game-winning touchdown pass, and the Wolverines extended their dominance over State.

When the dust settled, the controversial end was a favorite topic among many media outlets. One theory stated that even though Avant's heel was on the line, that fact that he got his toe down in bounds first made it a legal catch. Unless Earth is now called Mars, Pearl Jam is a terrible band and Vanessa Marcil is ugly, the rule states that a player must land with one foot entirely in bounds in order for it to be a completed pass. If in fact that toe/heel exception is found in the rulebook, it is certainly news to most in State College. Anyone looking to conduct further research on the matter might have interest in a recent Penn State-Indiana game when the exact same play was ruled the other way.

But whatever the case may be, the irony is clear as day. A play that should have been reviewed to help Paterno's cause was not by the same system that Paterno's cause employed.

Despite the trend, the adage that a good team makes its own breaks is still valid. In each of those scenarios, could Penn State ultimately have won the game in lieu of the incorrect calls? Certainly. However, it is not as if they all occurred during the first series of the game. Every one came at a critical point, and to witness it time after time certainly gives Paterno's whining more credence.

Penn State football did not matter during the five-year span in which Paterno and Big Ten referees failed to agree on anything. In 2005, the disagreements are alive and well, but so is his ability to overcome adversity. And as far as those who scrutinize, there will always be disagreements when one person holds control over an entity that so many care so much about — just mention Anthony Morelli's useful snaps during the 2004 season and you'll find out — but that comes with the territory, and nobody understands that better than the most famous 78-year-old resident of Mckee Street.

Fact: Paterno has reinvented himself with a stronger dedication to recruitment and an updated offensive philosophy.

Supposition: For now, the promise of a smooth transition when his successor finally assumes control seems considerably brighter.

Result: As for those rocky seasons? Well, at the very least, he'll always have the Dave Benfatti years.

Now there's one for which no referee in the world can be blamed.


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