It's no secret that the major obstacle on the path to road victories for Penn State in recent years has been its offensive game plan (or lack thereof). It's been noted that when Joe Paterno takes his troops away from Beaver Stadium, he often overrules the assistant coaches' desires, performs an 11th-hour risk analysis and ultimately puts down the clamps on the offense.
The Nittany Lions are currently ranked No. 6 and their first Big Ten road game of the season is pending. Last year, Paterno's squad was in a similar situation. Were you excited when undefeated and 10th-ranked Penn State went to Ann Arbor (also the first conference road game) with a gift-wrapped blueprint on how to beat the secondary-challenged Wolverines?
When that first offensive series began, surely you were expecting Anthony Morelli to be in the shotgun formation and start the game with a solid mix of short, high-percentage passes to get things going through the air. Checking the tape, there was a rush by Austin Scott for no gain followed by a one-yard gain by Matt Hahn. You know the rest.
The setback at Michigan (the ninth straight loss in the series) was so baffling because Paterno had the winning ticket to a decade-long lottery drought in his hands but decided not to cash it in. Those inside the program reported a supposed heated argument between Paterno and his son during that practice week. It was almost as if the elder Paterno heard all week how easy it would be to exploit the Wolverines' defense and decided instead to do it his own way or no way.
Now, fast-forward ahead to this past Saturday night. Call it the Spread HD, all it whatever you want. It is simply the style of offense that most winning teams employ — a balanced attack that keeps the opposition guessing. By any name, the elder Paterno allowed the younger, along with Galen Hall, to continue its full use in conference play.
That was a home game.
The main difference now as opposed to this juncture last season is the quarterback. The playmakers and the offensive line are still there, but Darryl Clark is more gifted athletically and is a better passer than Morelli was. Perhaps it was Paterno's lack of faith in Morelli's ability that kept the playbook minimized over the last two years. Whatever the reasons were, that's now history. This is Clark's team and he is certainly capable. Now all he needs is a head coach who will keep the faith when a plane trip is involved.
Whether or not the 2008 campaign is indeed the swan song for Paterno, there have been few contracts in college sports history more analyzed than the one that exists for the 81-year-old living legend. It ends at the conclusion of this season.
But Paterno's contract is not the issue of the moment, primarily because no time is a good time according to the Old Main brass. His team is undefeated and back in the top 10 for the first time in four years. The issue at bar, rather, is the chance for Penn State to further its revival and reach the Bowl Championship Series for the second time. If that happens, it would be tough to criticize the (on the field) success of this program since a certain conversation between certain higher-ups and a certain head coach at a certain house took place several years back.
After the first five games of the season, with an offense that is firing on all cylinders, some might believe that there is little reason to worry about competing against a Purdue team that is nationally ranked 99th in rush defense and 95th in pass defense.
It's the culture; moreover, it's the premise that over the recent past, Paterno produces an entirely different product away from home. It's the fact that knowledgeable observers have been fully aware of the end result before the opening kickoff of certain recent conference road games that makes the reserved hedge their bets in the realization process of this program's potential each season. Without question, this is an entirely different team in road conference games than it is at home vs. Big Ten foes.
The crux of the season, of course, is the upcoming stretch in which the Lions face Purdue, Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio State in successive weeks. As excited as you may be by the unblemished and impressive start to this 2008 campaign, be careful. If you set yourself up with false hope, you only have yourself to blame. There are those already convinced — due to past performance — what will happen at either 2:45 p.m. this coming Saturday or 10:45 p.m. on Oct. 11. If PSU is locked in a tight battle in the fourth quarter and a crafty offensive drive is needed to gain the lead, and if Joe Tiller and/or Bret Bielema stack the box with eight or nine defenders expecting Evan Royster
Only Joe Paterno can prove you wrong.
When Jim Tressel needed to take the Beaver Stadium faithful out of the game early last year, he called plays that Tom Bradley had never seen before. When Glen Mason marched into State College with the 20th-ranked team in the country in 2003, he took a risk with a game-opening onside kick. When Lloyd Carr wanted to inject energy into his offense against Penn State on the road in 1999, he disposed a scenario in which Tom Brady faked an injury for one play, then brought in Drew Henson and called a wacky screen option throw back to Henson, who ran untouched for what seemed to be miles.
What will Paterno do to ignite his offense on the road? He'll either continue to be conservative or follow through with his 2008 allowance of a diversified, unpredictable offense. The former will result in a 6-2 conference record and the latter could lead to the BCS title game.
This is certainly not a reinvention of the wheel; most understand and acknowledge the offensive struggles on the road and that the head coach is ultimately responsible for said struggles. The intriguing correlated query is whether Paterno will change his ways and implement the necessary alterations if he thinks this is his final season. Is a new approach in the cards, or will this mighty tiger refuse to change his stripes even in perhaps the final hours of his tenure?
If he decides to go for it all, there may not be a need — on either side — for contract talks.