Big Ten Preview: Relentless Paterno, Penn State look to rebound

by | Senior Writer

Paterno has led the Nittany Lions to 58 wins in the past six seasons. (US Presswire)  
Paterno has led the Nittany Lions to 58 wins in the past six seasons. (US Presswire)  

CHICAGO -- Penn State's Joe Paterno is predictably old-fashioned. After all, he is 84 years old. Paterno also is not as tech savvy as most other college football coaches. OK, he's probably the least tech savvy coach on the planet.

Paterno said he doesn't have a computer or a cell phone and admits he's clueless about Twitter -- at least the 2011 version.

"People tell me about Twitter," Paterno said. "I don't know what Twitter is. When I was a kid, a 'twitter' was when a good-looking girl walked by with a short skirt. Everyone 'twitted.'"

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Paterno's tweeting methods may be outdated and some critics suggest also that the game has passed him by. That he's no longer able to keep up with today's crop of corporation-type coaches. That he's not from the same mold.

Well, they're exactly right: Paterno is different. He holds his players to higher standards, demands they go to class and he doesn't cheat.

"The players are here to get an education," Paterno said.

In 46 years as a head coach, Penn State's football program has never committed a major NCAA violation. In typical JoePa fashion, he shrugs that off as being "lucky." By comparison, in just the past 25 years, two-thirds of the 67 automatic qualifying BCS conference programs have committed major NCAA violations.

Paterno has been a head coach longer than a lot of current coaches have been alive. He has won 401 games in 45 seasons. Although last season's 7-6 record was a disappointment, the Nittany Lions have won 58 games in the past six seasons -- Paterno's best six-year run since winning 60 games from 1994-99.

At the Big Ten's Football Kickoff last month, Paterno talked about his improved health. But at Sunday's practice he was blindsided by wide receiver Devon Smith. Paterno suffered a hairline fracture of his pelvis and injured his right shoulder.

He was released from the hospital Tuesday.

"The last couple years running around with a cart, that's not my style," Paterno said before the injury. "I feel a lot better than I did a year ago. I had two tough years physically. The kid from Wisconsin running into me in the sideline, when I broke my knee that time. Then I threw my hip out showing off, trying to show the kids how to kick a football. I couldn't kick when I was healthy. I sure as hell couldn't kick with a broken knee.

"But anyway, I feel good. I'm back to doing a lot of things I used to do, walking a lot more. I've been watching what I eat. I feel good. I enjoyed this spring, have a lot more enthusiasm.

Paterno said he prefers "running around, chewing people out and trying to demonstrate a little bit."

But for how much longer?

"I'd like to coach as long as I feel like I can do a good job," Paterno said.

Penn State senior wide receiver Derek Moye said the Nittany Lions have noticed a different Paterno this summer.

"Last year everyone was questioning his health," Moye said. "This year he's like a new man. I was walking behind him [last month] and I was kind of surprised it was him, he was walking so fast."

The Nittany Lions are hoping for a faster Big Ten start this fall. Last season, Penn State dropped its first two league games to Iowa and Illinois by a combined 41 points and finished 4-4 in league play.

Penn State's season-ending 37-24 loss to Florida at the Outback Bowl summed up the Nittany Lions' season. Penn State led 24-20 entering the fourth quarter, but trailed 30-24 with three minutes remaining.

Penn State reached Florida's 25 in the final minute and was driving for the winning touchdown. However, Matt McGloin's third-down pass was intercepted by Florida's Ahmad Black and returned for an 80-yard touchdown.

The starting quarterback battle remains unsettled between McGloin and Rob Bolden, but that's not a concern, Paterno said.

"The quarterback situation will be better," Paterno said. "How good? We'll find out."

Penn State junior linebacker Michael Mauti is confident the Nittany Lions, with 14 returning starters, will be improved.

"I think we have a lot more leaders than we had last year," Mauti said. "We'll be better off than we were last year. The feeling around the building is we have the potential to take this to another level. We have the personnel to do it. It matters how hard we work."

And there are few coaches who work as hard as the 84-year old guy in State College, Pa.

On Tuesday, Penn State quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno had this to say about his father's recovery from getting blindsided at Sunday's practice.

"Saw Joe at the house this morning. Immediately started on practice, QBs, details & everything else....the man is relentless."

Jay Paterno posted that statement on his Twitter account, not that Joe Paterno ever saw it. He's old fashioned and outdated, you know.'s Adam Jacobi predicts order of finish

Leaders Division

1. Wisconsin

Bret Bielema's high-octane offense loses its leading rusher and senior quarterback, and two All-American linemen. No matter? No matter when Wisconsin also brings back Montee Ball and James White at tailback, adds dynamic QB Russell Wilson for his senior season, and still boasts an offensive line that averages 6'5" and 320 pounds across the board. The defense is fierce too, with former Big Ten defensive freshman of the year Chris Borland returning after missing 2010 to injury and six more returning starters on a defense that, frankly, doesn't even need to be that good for Wisconsin to get a victory. The party kicks off in a big way at Camp Randall when Wisconsin faces Nebraska in each team's conference opener on October 1. Get real-time Wisconsin updates

2. Ohio State

Jim Tressel's out. Terrelle Pryor's out. Four other starters face significant suspensions. The head coach is a 37-year-old with literally zero experience leading a program. So naturally, Ohio State is in second place in the division. That's how good the program still is, even in one of its darkest moments in recent history. In fact, the loss of Pryor might have a bigger impact on the Buckeyes' season than the loss of Tressel will; Fickell was an assistant head coach of the Buckeyes before Tressel's departure, and he's still got Tressel's staff surrounding him and providing continuity for the players. No such stability exists under center, where a handful of contenders -- each with their own strengths and significant drawbacks -- are battling for the starting role. Shame, really; had Terrelle Pryor come back for at least the last seven games of his senior season, we're probably talking about at least a divisional championship for the Buckeyes. The rest of the pieces are pretty much there. Get real-time Ohio State updates

3. Penn State

Speaking of storied programs with major question marks at quarterback, Penn State comes into the 2011 season with the same quandary under center it faced last season. Rob Bolden and Matt McGloin are both back, and neither has set himself apart in the quarterback race. The offensive line is suspect too (but not awful), so look for an offense that comes and goes at times this year. The defense is solid, though, and the Linebacker U moniker may fit once again with Michael Mauti and Nate Stupar leading a deep, talented unit. The entire starting secondary returns too, but for as much as the defense struggled against the run in 2010, the pass defense wasn't a whole lot better. That probably had as much to do with the lack of pressure put on opposing quarterbacks than anything -- team sacks dropped from 37 in 2009 to 17 last year -- so the experience, cohesion, and improvement in the front seven should all help the secondary do its job better in 2011. The end of the schedule features a game against Nebraska and road trips to Ohio State and Wisconsin, though; as such, any division title aspirations the Nittany Lions might have will likely evaporate in November. Get real-time Penn State updates

4. (tie) Illinois

It's never dull in the world of a Ron Zook-led football program, as the seven Zook-era games where Illinois scored over 30 points and still lost will attest, and this season shouldn't be much different. Nathan Scheelhaase was superb as a true freshman starting at QB last year, and the offense shouldn't lose too much production even with Mikel LeShoure off in the NFL. Defensively, though, there's no replacing Corey Liuget, who was a terror on the interior, and new MLB Jonathan Brown is unlikely to approach the level of production the Illini got from departed Martez Wilson. There's money to be made running the ball on Illinois, and when a team can't stop the run effectively, it usually can't keep points off the board. In other words, expect more shootouts -- and the unhappy endings that sometimes accompany them. Get real-time Illinois updates

4. (tie) Purdue

As pure, unadulterated unfairness goes, it's hard to match the spate of injuries that befell the Purdue offense last year. Quarterback Robert Marve, tailback Ralph Bolden, and wideout Keith Smith -- all talented starters -- suffered season-ending ACL injuries either in the preseason or early part of the season. There's some precious stability here now; dual-threat sophomore Rob Henry is now the returning starter at quarterback, and was recently named co-captain by his teammates. Bolden is healthy. Smith is gone, but the Boilermakers have a trio of experienced wide receivers back in his place. Purdue was pretty competitive last year, leading in the second half in losses against Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Indiana; will the ability to field a true first-team offense turn some losses into wins?

6. Indiana

Kevin Wilson is as relentlessly positive and intense as coaches go, and he's probably right for the Hoosiers long-term, but his first season in Bloomington will likely be a cold dose of reality. Gone is productive quarterback Ben Chappell, as is most of the Hoosiers' already-weak secondary. Talented wideout Damarlo Belcher is back, at the very least, and the Indiana running game will be stabilized by the return of Darius Willis, who was lost for the season in Week 4 last year. The annual date with Purdue is probably IU's best shot to get a win in conference play this year, but even if Indiana goes 0-8 in 2011, this was never going to be a one-year turnaround to begin with.

Legends Division

1. Nebraska

It's going to be the Battle of the Big Reds in the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game, which astonishingly hasn't been renamed the Legendary Leadership Hero President Student-Athlete Patriot Game (yet). Nebraska's got the meanest defense in the Big Ten, spearheaded by All-American candidate Jared Crick. And by All-American candidate Lavonte David. And by All-American candidate Alfonzo Dennard. Taylor Martinez has moved past the drama of last season, and with a healthy ankle, he's going to be a nightmare for opposing defensive coordinators to contain. The offensive line has to replace three valuable starters, so if there's one weakness, it's in the trenches. There's size and talent there, though, so if Nebraska gets five worthy starters, there's no stopping that offense if it's healthy. Get real-time Nebraska updates

2. (tie) Northwestern

Surprised to see Northwestern so high? Pat Fitzgerald's squad returns its superstar quarterback, plenty of experience on the rest of the offense, and a bevy of returning lettermen on defense. Yes, Dan Persa's Achilles injury from last November hurts the 'Cats, and it's probably going to cost them a game or two early on in the year. And yet, Northwestern has been a devilish opponent in late conference play; in the last five years, Northwestern has recorded 10 upset wins during the last four weeks of the regular season, including four wins against ranked opponents. Look for another strong finish from the Wildcats in 2011, and the beginning of the powerhouse job offers for Pat Fitzgerald. I project Northwestern to beat fellow 5-3 division finishers Iowa and Michigan State, so the Wildcats win the hypothetical tiebreaker among second-place finishers here.

2. (tie) Iowa

An eight- or nine-win season seems likely for the Hawkeyes, but that's probably a function of the schedule more than anything, as this looks like the weakest Iowa team since 2007 (though likely not on 2007's level). QB James Vandenberg has big shoes to fill with Ricky Stanzi off in the NFL, but he's been able to avoid anything resembling a quarterback controversy, so he's probably got the coaches' trust for a good reason. Less trustworthy is a defensive line that badly underwhelmed in 2010, then lost three players to the NFL draft. This'll probably be a run-first offense, and with four returning offensive linemen and Marcus Coker at tailback after a scintillating end to his true freshman season, that's not a bad thing. Get real-time Iowa updates

2. (tie) Michigan State

In a straight power poll sense, Michigan State is the second-best team in this division. Kirk Cousins is probably the best quarterback in a conference full of talented signal-callers, and his cadre of skill position players is also great -- especially All-Big Ten tailback Edwin Baker. The offensive line is retooling, though, and thanks to the departure of four defenders that were at least 2nd Team all-conference, the defense isn't quite as strong as 2010's edition. It's still pretty good though -- Jerel Worthy and Trenton Robinson will both make all-conference teams this year. In fact, the main problem facing the Spartans this year isn't a personnel issue, it's the schedule; road trips to OSU, Nebraska, and Iowa all await Sparty, as does a trip to Evanston in November, when the Wildcats are historically the most dangerous. Put it this way: if the Spartans make it to the Big Ten Championship Game, they'll have earned it. Get real-time Michigan State updates

5. Michigan

New head coach Brady Hoke has pieces to work with. It all starts, of course, with dynamo QB Denard Robinson, who was only second in the entire nation in total yards in his first season as Michigan's quarterback. Unfortunately, Robinson is in the process of learning a new offense, and Hoke's more traditional sensibilities will likely cut into Robinson's production -- to an extent. Denard is still Denard though, and he'll still be given a chance to shine; having Roy Roundtree and Junior Hemingway back at wideout sure doesn't hurt either. As any Michigan fan can attest, though, the problem under Rich Rodriguez was never the offense. No, Rodriguez's defenses were bad, bad, bad. Bad enough that his three seasons in Ann Arbor marked the three most porous defenses in Michigan history. New defensive coordinator Greg Mattison will be tasked with turning that around, but true defensive improvement takes experience, and Michigan's defense doesn't have enough of that quite yet. Get real-time Michigan updates

6. Minnesota

Welcome to the Big Ten, Jerry Kill. As one of four incoming head coaches in 2011, Kill faces a rebuilding task matched in difficulty only by Kevin Wilson and Indiana. QB MarQueis Gray is going to be Kill's linchpin, and while Gray struggled at both WR and QB under Brewster, he appears to be putting everything together in the offseason; Gray has already put on about 20 pounds and is reportedly one of the hardest-working members of the team. The back seven on defense is experienced, but struggled mightily against the pass in 2010. If improvement is merely incremental here, the Gophers will be getting lit up again this year. There's a spark of something there in Minneapolis, but Kill's going to need more than one year to get Minnesota back to the winning ways it enjoyed under Glen Mason. Get real-time Minnesota updates


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