Archive for Saturday, September 23, 2000

Poor start perplexes Paterno

After losing three of their first four games, the Nittany Lions will face No. 14 Ohio State today

September 23, 2000

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— One minute, Joe Paterno wonders if his team is capable of winning another game this season. The next, he says everything is just fine with Penn State.

Paterno's confusion is understandable considering the Nittany Lions have been 1-3 just once before in his 35 years as coach. Penn State hasn't started 1-4 since 1964 when Rip Engle was the coach.

But the Nittany Lions have to pull off a major surprise against No. 14 Ohio State today to avoid matching that start.

The Buckeyes have won three straight home games in the series by an average margin of 23 points. And that's when Penn State had much better teams.

"We may not be good enough to beat anybody on our schedule. We just may not be good enough. I don't know," Paterno said.

Sounds like the Nittany Lions are desperate. Right?

"You guys all think I am about ready to shoot myself. I am excited about the eight big games we have," Paterno said. "I am excited that I think I have a pretty good football team that is eventually going to be a darn good football team."

Huh?

Paterno is full of contradictions as he continues to seek answers for Penn State's struggles. After last Saturday's 12-0 loss to Pittsburgh, Paterno suggested he might make wholesale changes.

"I'm going back home to square one," he said.

Paterno, still six victories shy of breaking Bear Bryant's Division I-A record of 323, even questioned himself.

"When things are as bad as they are, I think I have to start looking at me first," he said.

Three days later, and after some soul-searching and a lot of film-watching, Paterno wasn't ready to make any changes. Not in the starting lineup. Not in the game plan. Not in his approach.

"If the situation demands some adapting, I would hope that I am smart enough to analyze the situation and say this is what has to be done," Paterno said. "I have done that. I really don't think there is anything to adapt to. I just think that we have to do what we are doing better. It is as simple as that."

The 73-year-old Paterno, whose critics say the game has passed him by, has support from most of his players.

"I have 100 percent faith in Coach Paterno," defensive end Bob Jones said. "He's been coaching football longer than I've been alive. If anyone knows football, it's him. What he does now really shows he's a great coach. He's frustrated, but he doesn't bring us down mentally."

One player, however, has openly questioned the competence of the coaching staff. After a 24-6 loss to Toledo on Sept. 9, tailback Larry Johnson criticized the play-calling on offense, saying it's "too predictable" and outdated.

"We've got coaches who've been here for 30, 20 years. It seems like things never change," Johnson said.

Of course, Paterno disagreed.

"I think Johnson shot his mouth off without thinking about it," Paterno said. "He is a young kid and a very ferocious competitor. (His comments) had nothing to do with the way we have played the last couple of weeks."

Neither Johnson's comments nor the predictability of Penn State's offense will matter today in the Big Ten opener against Ohio State. The Buckeyes (3-0) are coming off a sluggish 27-16 victory over Miami (Ohio) and are looking to avenge last year's 23-10 loss at State College.

"I never imagined Penn State would be like this, for them to have a start like this," Ohio State tailback Derek Combs said.

Still, the Buckeyes are wary.

"We're not going to see a lot of cautious play this weekend," Ohio State offensive coordinator Chuck Stobart said. "My guess is they'll turn it loose and let it go. Right or wrong, let 'em go play. They've got to get running to the ball like they did a year ago."

Entering the season many figured Penn State would have more trouble on defense than offense. After all, the Nittany Lions lost nine starters to graduation, including Courtney Brown and LaVar Arrington, the top two picks in the NFL draft.

Instead, Penn State's biggest problem has been scoring. The Nittany Lions have 11 points in their three losses.

Quarterback Rashard Casey has been erratic, the offense line has been inconsistent, the running game has been nonexistent and the receivers routinely fail to make simple catches.

None of this has been a surprise to Paterno.

"Unfortunately, when I talked to people before the season, nobody listened to me," Paterno said. "I said we were going to have a tough time. We were a young team and it was going to take awhile for this team to play itself into being a good football team."

At this rate, it seems it will take much longer than "awhile."

Well, maybe a few minutes in Paterno's eyes.

"We are all right," Paterno said. "I really don't think we are very far off."

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