Banged up Lions look to regroup
Penn State has a bye week on this weekend's Big Ten schedule, and it couldn't have come at a better time.
Bye weeks give teams a chance to rest from the rigors of the season, as well as for the injured to get healthy.
This is especially true for the Nittany Lions, who are dealing with a high rate of wounded warriors at the moment.
That goes emotionally as well as physically. Penn State was embarassed 33-13 by Illinois in front of a Homecoming crowd at Beaver Stadium last week, dropping to 3-3 on the season.
This was a young Lions team entering the campaign, one with inexperience in some key sports, so a reasonable amount of growing pains were to be expected. That was the case through the first five weeks. PSU won the games it was expected to win, although not in particularly resounding fashion, and lost on the road to two ranked opponents, Alabama and Iowa.
The Illinois game was a different story, however. The Illini are in much the same boat as PSU with a young squad, but the Lions have done well against them, winning 13 of 17 games before Saturday, including the previous six at Beaver Stadium. It's the kind of game PSU fans expect to win.
Instead, the Illini beat up on the Lions, outrushing them and shutting down their struggling offense, except for a Rob Bolden 80 yard bomb to Derek Moye. If it wasn't for the PSU special teams recovering two fumbled punts, which resulted in two Collin Wagner field goals, the difference could have been greater.
At this point, the Lions needed this week off to regroup and re-evaluate their personnel for the second half of the season. Admittedly, with the disabled list as long as it is, finding not only the right bodies but healthy ones to stick in there will be a challenge for coach Joe Paterno and his staff.
Paterno didn't shy away from pointing the finger at himself for the Lions' shoddy performance last week.
"Overall, we were poor," he said during the Big Ten media conference this week. "I don't think I did a very good job coaching these kids and getting them ready for the game. We just weren't on top of some things. We didn't make a couple of adjustments we could have made."
While the Illinois game wasn't his finest coaching moment, Paterno is attempting to deflect the blame from his players.
"If there is a lot a lot of finger pointing, I think that's detrimental and doesn't help," he said. "I hope there isn't as much as some guys would react to after a tough, not a tough loss, but after a situation like we had against Illinois where we really just got out-played."
With the Lions floundering, the critics are surfacing, just as they did during the period from 2000-2004 when PSU was experiencing losing seasons. One New York Post columnist called the Illinois game "the unofficial end of the Joe Paterno era at Penn State". That remains to be seen. Given Paterno's nature, it's hard to think that one loss would be the last straw to cause him to step down.
Administrations and alumni aren't the most patient when it comes to tolerating losing, however; look at what happened with Bobby Bowden at Florida State.
If the Lions do end up with a losing campaign, the timing wouldn't be great for the university, which is in the process of doing seat transfers for Beaver Stadium. Getting alums to shell out more bucks for ticket upgrades might become a bit tougher.
Tough road ahead
With six games left, reaching the .500 mark to be bowl-eligible and the 400 victory milestone will be difficult if Paterno can't right the ship. He needs three wins for both, but the way the Lions are playing, there are no sure victories. If anyone thinks so, just watch a tape of the Illinois game.
PSU has three road games to go. The Lions travel to Minnesota next week, and they are 6-4 all-time against the Golden Gophers, having played some wild games with them over the years.
They are also at Ohio State, and while the series with the Buckeyes is tied at 12-12, OSU could still be top-ranked by then, and PSU doesn't have a recent history of playing well at Columbus, even if it did win on its last visit there.
The Lions also have a game with Indiana at Fed Ex Stadium in Washington, D.C. PSU has never lost to the Hoosiers (12-0), but the Illinois game showed they can't rely on tradition to win this season.
That leaves three home games. The Lions are 9-3 all-time against Northwestern, but the Wildcats have been on the rise. Michigan has been tough on PSU; the Wolverines lead the series 10-4, although the Lions have won the last two meetings. PSU holds a slim 13-12-1 edge over Michigan State, although it historically has had the Spartans' number at Beaver Stadium.
Those numbers can be tossed to the wayside if PSU doesn't find a way to get healthy. That has compounded the problem, as it has been difficult for the Lions to get any consistency with a revolving door at the trainer's room.
"I was talking to our medical people who have been with us for a long time and they said this is the worst situation in the 24 years that they've been here," Paterno noted.
Three starters have already sustained season-ending injuries: offensive tackle Lou Eliades (knee), tight end Gary Gilliam (knee) and safety Nick Sukay (torn pectoral muscle). Sukay was injured against Illinois and was leading the team in interceptions with three.
Penn State released a further status update this week. Wide receiver Curtis Drake (leg), defensive end Eric Lattimore (wrist) and tight end Andrew Szczerba (back) are listed as being out a minimum of two weeks.
Some of the other wounded are listed a possible for the Minnesota game: defensive end Jack Crawford (foot), defensive tackle Jordan Hill (ankle), linebackers Bani Gbadyu (calf), Gerald Hodges (leg) and Michael Mauti (ankle), and safety Andrew Dailey (stinger).
"We've got to be careful that we don't ask kids to do things they're really not quite ready for," said Paterno. "We've got a situation that's going to take some doing to straighten out."
There are no easy fixes. The players who are on the field have to make plays, on both sides of the ball. That is something that has yet to emerge for the Lions.
"We've got to get refocused on what we've got to do better, because I thought after we'd play 4-5 games we'd be a little better football team than we are right now," he said. "As I said earlier, I can't blame anyone else but myself for that."
PSU Number 3
Penn State's Beaver Stadium has been selected the No. 3 "Saturday Shrine" by a Sporting News expert panel. The stadium earned the nation's No. 3 ranking from a panel of current and former college football coaches and broadcasters. The panel weighed each of the nation's stadiums by the facility itself, the fans and atmosphere, the city and surroundings, traditions and history.
The October 11 issue of Sporting News lists the panel's Top 20 "Saturday Shrines," including a two page spread on Beaver Stadium, which opened in 1960 and is celebrating its 50th Anniversary season.
The Sporting News Top 5 "Saturday Shrines:" 1. Bryant-Denny Stadium (Alabama); 2. Notre Dame Stadium; 3. Beaver Stadium (Penn State); 4. Tiger Stadium (LSU); and 5. Ohio Stadium (Ohio State).