Lions looking for turnaround vs. Gophers
Penn State returns to the gridiron today after a bye week looking for ways to turn things around in the second half of the season.
The Nittany Lions are 3-3 and coming off two double digit losses in the Big Ten, 24-3 to Iowa and 33-13 to Illinois. The loss to the Fighting Illini should still be fresh in their minds, as it occured in front of a Beaver Stadium Homecoming crowd.
Coach Joe Paterno blamed himself for some of the problems against Illinois, but he has made it clear that the team is not progressing the way he felt it could.
There's no doubt that the Lions' youth and inexperience in many spots have contributed to that, but after six games, there has been few encouraging signs of improvement. A rash of injuries hasn't helped, either, as the Lions have played with little confidence or consistency.
The Lions will get some of the wounded back this week, particularly at linebacker, but others still have some lingering hurts, and three starters, including tight end Gary Gilliam (knee), tackle Lou Eliades (knee) and safety Nick Sukay (torn pectoral) are done for the season. Also out for this week are wideout Curtis Drake (leg), defensive end Eric Latimore (wrist) and tight end Andrew Szczerba (back). Running back Brandon Beachum (knee) remains doubtful.
Paterno said he doesn't expect Latimore and defensive end Jack Crawford, who has a foot injury, to be ready for awhile.
Linebackers Bani Gbadyu, Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti are listed as possible, as are tackle Jordan Hill and safety Andrew Dailey.
With Sukay done, Malcolm Willis will get his shot at the safety position. Drew Astorino moves to free safety and Andrew Dailey to strong safety.
If there's anything that could improve the Lions' outlook, it's a trip to Minnesota. The Golden Gophers are one team in the Big Ten that has been worse off than PSU.
The Gophers are 1-6, with their lone win a 24-17 verdict over Middle Tennessee State. They have since dropped six in a row, to South Dakota (41-38), USC (32-21), Northern Illinois (34-23), Northwestern (29-28), Wisconsin (41-23) and Purdue (28-17).
The rough start has cost coach Tim Brewster his job. Minnesota parted ways with Brewster, a Phillipsburg High graduate, this week after he posted a dismal 20-48 mark during his six years, and the Gophers will be under the guidance of interim coach Jeff Horton for the remainder of the season.
"I'm sorry to see it," said Paterno of Brewster's ouster. "I liked Tim. He's an easy guy to be around, an outgoing guy. I was a little bit worried about him in the sense that he built up expectations for the Minnesota people, and I think he underestimated just how long it was going to take."
Minnesota has Adam Weber at quarterback, and he holds many of the school's career passing marks. He needs 100 yards to become the fifth Big Ten player to pass for 10,000 yards in his career.
Weber has completed 122 of his 216 pass attempts this season for 1,662 yards for 14 TDs against six interceptions. His top receivers have been Da'Jon McKnight (28-439), Eric Lair (26-370) and MarQueis Gray (26-349).
The Gopher ground game features Duane Bennett (92-458) and DeLeon Eskridge (90-350) splitting the ball carrying load.
Defensively, the Gophers are led by linebacker Gary Tinsley, who is the team's leading tackler (56). Up front, defensive tackle Jewhan Edwards anchors the front. Kyle Theret is the leading tackler in the secondary.
The Lions lead the series with the Gophers 7-4 and have won three in a row, including a 20-0 whitewash in Happy Valley last year.
There have been some close ones between PSU and Minnesota, however, including a 28-27 overtime victory on their last visit to Minneapolis in 2006. Since then, the Gophers have abandoned the Metrodome in favor of their own outdoor digs, TCF Bank Stadium, which will be the 65th different venue in which Paterno has coached after the teams tee it up at 12 noon eastern time kickoff. ESPNU is televising the game.
Ring the Bell
As a latecomer to the Big Ten, Penn State doesn't have many trophies games, but this is one of them. Today's winner gets possession of the Governors' Victory Bell. The Lions are hoping to ring in the second half of the season on the winning side, and the oddsmakers have them installed as a 9.5 point favorite.
With the Gophers experiencing a change at coach, Paterno admitted it is difficult to determine their mindset for the game.
"Nobody realy knows how they are going to react," he said. "You don't know the relationship of the players to the new head coach. I don't know the new coach (Horton), I know of him.
"I don't think we can worry about that. I think we have got to worry about Penn State. I think we have to play better, more consistent. We have got to makes some plays. We have not made some plays that would have made us a little more competitive, whether it's catching the football or other things."
Paterno also cited a need for his squad to get more fired up after a lackluster performance against the Illini. However, there has not been wholesale housecleaning during the bye week.
"We debated that," he admitted. We were going to make a couple of switches, but after looking at the Illinois game, we decided we were okay, we are not going to make a lot of switches.
"I challenged the team ... we have played enough football games now that we ought to be able to get out there and understand how the game us is won. We lost, and this is a week that we have got to do some things, and I think we are going to let it go that way."
The way things have been going for PSU, the last thing they need is to take Minnesota lightly.
"Oh, I think they are dangerous," related Paterno. "I think they have a fine line. Their backs run tough. They have a good scheme. They don't make a lot of mistakes. They don't put the ball on the ground carelessly ... this is not going to be an easy football game."
NITTANY LINES - While the Lions have struggled with their running game (they rank 10th in the Big Ten and 85th nationally at 126 yards per game), Paterno backed off on his offensive line a bit, stating that they have been getting more maligned than they might deserve. The loss of Eliades for the season didn't help the O-line ... with some injuries in the secondary, Chaz Powell has been moved from wide receiver back to cornerback. Paterno said Powell came to the staff and requested the move ... PSU does rank first in the Big Ten in fewest penalties and yards penalized (a national best 21.8 yards per game). Their kickoff return coverage and opponent's third down conversion rate are also tops in the conference ... defensive end Sean Stanley, who has sat out two fames for undisclosed reasons, was arrested by campus police for possessing a small amount of marijuana. Paterno dismissed a question regarding Stanley at the press conference ... the PSU starting defensive ends with Crawford and Latimore out are now Pete Massaro and Kevion Latham ...due to his career-high 18 tackles against the Illini, linebacker Chris Colasanti currently leads the Lions with 59 stops ... this will be the last meeting between PSU and the Gophers for awhile, as the two schools will be in opposite divisions when the Big Ten realigns next year with the addition of Nebraska. The Lions and Gophers aren't scheduled to meet at least the next two years.