Penn State looks to close strong
Joe Paterno dismissed any talk this week about Penn State being concerned with possibly snagging a spot in the Bowl Championship Series.
The Nittany Lions, ranked 14th in the BCS standings this week (as well as 12th by the USA Today Coaches and 13th by the Associated Press writers polls), putting them on the bubble.
That bubble almost burst in the first half against Indiana last week, when the Lions stumbled around, committed four turnovers but somehow managed to be tied at half, 10-10, before Navorro Bowman's interception return for a touchdown woke them up enough for a 31-20 win over the Hoosiers.
Ohio State grabbed the Big Ten's Rose Bowl berth by defeating Iowa in overtime last week, and the Hawkeyes are still ranked in front of Penn State by the BCS. The Big Ten has two guaranteed slots in the BCS, but the Lions could still be under consideration for an at-large bid. If not, they could end up with one of the conference's slots in either the Capital One or Outback Bowls.
There's even a scenario where PSU could gain a share of the Big Ten title if Michigan (5-6) upsets Ohip State today at noon at the Big House. The Buckeyes are 6-1 in the conference and the Lions, Iowa and Wisconsin are all at 5-2 heading into this weekend.
Still, the Lions (10-2 overall, 5-2 Big Ten) need to win in East Lansing this afternoon if they want to be in the discussion.
That adds something extra to the annual tussle with Michigan State (6-5 overall, 4-3 Big Ten), the Land Grant Trophy notwithstanding. This afternoon's kick-off is set for 3:30 p.m. before an ABC/ESPN television audience.
"You guys can speculate all you want. If we don't beat Michigan State, none of it's important," said Paterno of the BCS talk at his weekly press conference, the text of which is at www.gopsusports.com.
Heading into Spartan territory has been a tough proposition for the Lions over the years. PSU leads the all-time series 13-12-1 and is 9-4-1 at Beaver Stadium vs. MSU, including last year's 49-18 blowout. At East Lansing, however, the Lions are 4-8 and dropped a 35-31 verdict the last time they visited in 2007.
Mark Dantonio is in his third year with the Spartans, who have had a rollercoaster season. Their wins have come against Montana State (44-3), Michigan (26-20 in OT), Illinois (24-14), Northwestern (24-14), Western Michigan (49-14) and Purdue last week (40-37), and they have lost to Central Michigan (29-27), Notre Dame (33-30), Wisconsin (38-30), Iowa (15-13) and Minnesota (42-34).
Seven of the Spartans' games have been decided by eight points or less, including all five losses.
PSU-MSU games are usually high-scoring affairs, as the two teams have combined to score 1,004 points in their 16 meetings since the Lions joined the Big Ten in 1993, an average of 62.7 per game. This year Sparty averages 31 points per game and the Lions 28.5. Defensively, however, PSU gives up just 11.6 per game compared to MSU's 23.5.
The Spartan passing attack, led by sophomore QB Kirk Cousins, is ranked number one in the Big Ten at 274.1 yards per game, and they average a conference-topping 413.8 yards of total offense.
Cousins, the Big Ten passing efficiency leader, has completed 61.9 percent of his passes, hitting on 169of 273 attempts for 2,305 yards and 17 TDs against four interceptions.
"There are a lot of solid quarterbacks in ths league," said Paterno. "This kid here, Cousins, is a good quarterback. Thet've beaten some pretty good football teams. They've been in games where they scored a lot of points, maybe not enough to win, but they have been very competitive because of their quarterback."
Cousins' top target is wide receiver Blair White, who has 61 receptions for 854 yards and eight TDs. Blair Cunningham (44 receptions), Mark Deli (24) and tight end Brian Linthicum (28) are all key cogs in the Spartans' receiving corps.
That doesn't even include wideout Keshawn Martin, who is the Spartans' leader in all-purpose yards with 1,067, including 12 receptions for 251 yards and three TDs. Martin is also a dangerous kick returner capable of going the distance.
The ground game is led by freshman Larry Caper, who has 101 carres for 411 yards and 6 TDs.
Defensively, the Spartans feature linebacker Greg Jones, who leads the Big Ten with 126 tackles, including 11 tackles for loss and 7 1/2 sacks. Eric Gordon (79 hits) and Brandon Denson (54) team with Jones for a solid corps of linebackers.
Up front, the Lions will have to watch for defensive end Trevor Anderson and tackle Jerel Worthy. Cornerback Chris L. Rucker tops the secondary with 51 stops.
The Lions' special teams have struggled most of the season, and they will be challenged again this week. In addition to Martin's return game, Spartan kicker Brett Swenson leads the Big Ten with 18 field goals and is tops in the conference in scoring with 92 points. Punter Aaron Bates averages 42.1 per attempt, but he has placed 18 punts inside the 20.
"Every week has been challenging, one way or another," said Paterno, who watched his returners have a rough time fielding kicks last week vs. the Hoosiers, although he joked that this week, the Lions would just not let MSU punt, as well as noting his own prowess as a returner for alma mater Brown.
"The kicking game will be a big factor in how this game goes," he added, noting the coverage will have to be on its toes against Martin.
NITTANY NOTES - Some Keystone State ties with the Spartans: Colin Neely, a starting redshirt junior defensive end, is a graduate of Bethlehem Freedom, and Lehighton High alumnus Dave Warner, who played his college ball at Syracuse, is MSU's Quarterbacks Coach under Dantonio. The success of Cousins speaks well for Warner's tutelage ... The win over Indiana gave the Lions at least a nine-win season for a remarkable 29th time under Paterno. ... PSU is 7-1 on the road the past two seasons, with the lone loss at Iowa ... Bowman earned Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors for his interception return and 12 tackles vs. Indiana, although the word is he is considering leaving for the NFL Draft ... junior running back Evan Royster is just 10 yards shy of 1,000 rushing for the season. He had 134 all-purpose yards and 2 TDs last week and can become the seventh Lion with multiple 1,000 yard seasons ... PSU is heading into today's game without running back Brandon Beachum, who is done for the season with an ACL knee injury. Wide receiver Chaz Powell and cornerback A.J. Wallace both have shoulder injuries and are listed as possible, but Paterno expressed doubt Powell would be ready. Freshman Curtis Drake stepped in with some big plays last week ... Powell and Beachum were part of the PSU kick coverage teams, so some changes will be needed there ... Paterno said DeOn'tae Pannell would remain at left guard for Johnnie Troutman ... Ed Czekaj, PSU Director of Athletics from 1969-80, passed away this week at the age of 87. Paterno, who succeeded Czekaj as AD for a couple of years, said that Czekaj was one of the great Penn Staters, known for his loyalty to the university.