Paterno is healthy, as are Nittany Lions
Relegated to the press box for much of last season because of a sore hip, a healthy coach Joe Paterno plans to return to the sideline this fall as Penn State prepares to defend its share of the Big Ten football title.
Really, did you expect JoePa to be anywhere else?
“I’ve enjoyed the competition, and I enjoy the challenges that go on with coaching at the level we’re at. I enjoy being around young people,” said the 82-year-old Paterno, who had hip replacement surgery late last year. “I don’t know what else I’d rather do.”
He’s being doing it for awhile, too. Paterno enters his 44th year as head coach, and a mind-boggling 60th at Penn State, including his 16 years as an assistant.
Armed with a new three-year deal, the Hall of Fame coach isn’t planning on going anywhere in the near future.
In fact, the settled contract and improved health made this offseason one of the quietest in awhile in Happy Valley. Recruiting is going well, and the Nittany Lions seem to be over a string of major off-field issues from recent seasons.
That’s kept most of the focus on the team coming back. Paterno’s group again seems primed for a Big Ten title run—and possibly a national title chase.
What’s motivating them this summer are thoughts of their last game. The Nittany Lions couldn’t overcome an uncharacteristically sloppy first half at the Rose Bowl, losing to Southern California, 38-24, in a game was more lopsided that the final score showed.
Paterno blames himself for the defeat, and the memories have been lingering with the head coach ever since.
“He was really, really upset, distraught as to how that game went and wishing we could play it over again,” quarterback Daryll Clark said.
A return trip to Pasadena could happen.
Clark burst on the scene last season to become one of the country’s top dual-threat quarterbacks, accounting for 29 total touchdowns, 10 on the ground. Elected a captain this summer, he is the unquestioned leader of the “Spread HD” offense, though there are some key holes to fill at receiver and offensive line.
On defense, captain and linebacker Sean Lee returns after a knee injury that kept him sidelined for 2008. A smart, intense player, Lee can’t wait to finally get his hands on an opposing tailback.
“Now it’s all water under the bridge. I’m back to normal. I’m back playing football,” Lee said. “I’m going to have a senior year at Beaver Stadium with these fans. It’s a dream come true for me.”
Lee will combine with Navorro Bowman (team-high 106 tackles) to form one of the best linebacking duos in the country. Jared Odrick is an athletic 6-foot-5, 300-pound terror at defensive tackle.
But there are concerns with depth and experience along the rest of the defensive line. A major worry also lies in the secondary, where Penn State must also break in four new starters.
A soft schedule could work for and against the Nittany Lions. Six of the first seven games are at home, and a nonconference lineup of Akron, Syracuse, Temple and FCS school Eastern Illinois should provide no problems—though it’s unclear how that might affect poll voters.
Potentially tricky road games await at Illinois, Michigan, Northwestern and Michigan State. But it’s the Nov. 7 visit from Ohio State that may well decide the Big Ten and a return trip to Pasadena—whether for the Rose Bowl or this season’s BCS title game.
“The way we played in the Rose Bowl (last season), we want to get back there,” Clark said. “Obviously, that’s where the national title game is played this season. We feel like we can get there.”