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Wednesday, September 18
Nittany Lions show JoePa's still got game

By Herb Gould
Special to

Every time we think he's on the way out, he pulls us back in.

At 75, coming off the first back-to-back losing seasons of a Hall of Fame career that is now in its 37th season, can we be blamed for thinking that Joe Paterno's time had come?

We meant no disrespect to the winningest coach in Division I-A history. But we saw a coach whose tried-and-true ways had run their course.

Playing seniors to a fault, relying on a buttoned-down offense and sticking with vanilla uniforms in a neon age are admirable traits. But only if you win. Mix in the loss of some key assistant coaches, some recruiting questions and a Big Ten filled with talented and energetic young coaches, and the Paterno era, which produced records of 5-7 and 5-6 the last two seasons, seemed to be winding down.

Minority Report
Incredible though it may seem, when Tyrone Willingham takes Notre Dame to East Lansing, Mich., to play Bobby Williams' Michigan State Spartans, exactly half the black head coaches in major-college football will be prowling the sidelines.

Neither Willingham nor Williams, who will have so much at stake this week, chose to create a distraction by pointing out that Division I-A schools currently employ only four black head coaches. (San Jose State coach Fitz Hill and New Mexico State coach Tony Samuel are the others.)

"The important thing for me to do is concentrate on winning football games," said Willingham, who has ND off to its first 3-0 start since 1996. "But I believe that if I do what I was brought here to do, which is win football games and help young people grow, a byproduct will be to accomplish all the other things that need to be accomplished."

While Willingham has the Irish poised for a very satisfying season, Williams is feeling some heat. His Spartans, who are expected to be a Big Ten heavyweight this fall, were embarrassed at home by Cal Saturday, when they booed lustily by their own fans. Too many losses like that could shorten his tenure at Michigan State.

On the other hand, as he hinted, Michigan State, which has won five straight against Notre Dame, has a chance to atone for the Cal debacle by making it six straight victories over the Irish.

"The fact that you have two black coaches coaching in this game is tremendous," Williams said. "It shows how far we have come in college football, to have two coaches in the national spotlight. But that's really for the general audience. The nature of this game is far bigger than that. There's already a tremendous amount of anxiety to this rivalry. The Michigan State-Notre Dame rivalry dates back to 1897. That in itself creates more [weight] to this football game."

Michigan coach Lloyd Carr didn't hesitate, though, when asked why there aren't more black head coaches.

"You'd have to survey the athletic directors and presidents across the country [for an answer]," Carr said. "But I think it's important that we do have more minority head coaches. There's no question that the time has passed, and those issues need to be addressed."

-- Herb Gould

And then, in one glorious evening, before a crowd of 110,753, the largest ever at Beaver Stadium, Paterno's Nittany Lions dismantled then-No. 7 Nebraska 40-7.

Never mind that the Cornhuskers might not have deserved their top-10 ranking. They certainly were good enough to be a measuring stick of whether Penn State had enough stuff to make a winner of Joe Paterno again.

It does.

With that victory, the most impressive win put up by a Big Ten team so far this fall, Penn State re-established itself as a serious player.

On what was billed as a statement weekend for the Big Ten, no school came up bigger than the Nittany Lions. While Michigan, Michigan State and Iowa were losing, and Wisconsin and Purdue were struggling, Penn State joined Ohio State as the Big Ten teams that have looked the sharpest in non-conference play.

Penn State is back. No further evidence is needed than the fact that Paterno is downplaying the dazzling display his team put on.

"We're not anywhere near good enough to start talking as if we're back, wherever that is. I don't know where we were," JoePa said. "Last year we lost to four good football teams early, and then we started to play good football. I don't know whether it's as dramatic as some people make it out to be. My job is not to look back. My job is to concentrate on Louisiana Tech this week."

What really opened our eyes was the imaginative way Penn State's offense left Nebraska flat-footed.

We knew Zack Mills was good. What we didn't know was how good he could make those around him look -- especially when the Nittany Lions went to some razzle-dazzle.

"It just looked like one of those football games where things really snowballed," said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, one of those talented new Big Ten coaches, whose Hawkeyes handed Penn State loss No. 3 in last year's 0-4 start. "I don't know a lot about Nebraska, but I have a good feel for Penn State. They're a good football team. We probably caught them at the ideal time last year. Early. During the season, they found a quarterback, and the whole team really responded to him. That's a big step to success.

"Now you're looking at a guy who's a veteran player that the team believes in," Ferentz said of Mills. "They have good players. At Penn State, they always have. Now they have the right mix. They're going to be a tough football team this year."

At this rate, Paterno, who is 329-96-3 and counting, might not be passed by Bobby Bowden after all.

One thing seems certain, though. JoePa won't be hearing many questions about how long he intends to coach this fall.

We were wrong. You're 75 and you're still right.

Around the Big Ten

The Illini will try to extend their seven-game home winning streak against San Jose State, which gave Ron Turner his first head coaching job. "I obviously have special feelings for them. But as we get ready to play them, they're another team -- a young up-and-coming team that has played some excellent football at times," said Turner, who went 7-4 at San Jose State in 1992 before leaving to become the Chicago Bears' offensive coordinator. "They were ahead of Washington 10 -0 in the third quarter (before losing 34-10) and they were only down 28-26 to Stanford late in the third quarter (of a 63-26 loss). They've made some mistakes that hurt them and they've gotten worn down, but they've showed they're capable of playing with anybody." ... San Jose State (1-2) opened its season with a 33-14 victory over Arkansas State, which was walloped 59-7 by the Illini Saturday.

Gibran Hamden, a fifth-year senior who made his first start in IU's surprisingly competitive 27-17 loss at Kentucky, will be at quarterback again when the Hoosiers play host to Central Michigan this week. "I thought he played well for his first start," coach Gerry DiNardo said of Hamden, who had two interceptions and fumbled when sacked while leading IU to a 394-327 edge in offensive yardage. "Gibran didn't play a mistake-free game. The turnovers are something we have to stop. But he played well enough to come back and be our starter against Central Michigan." ... Previous starter Tommy Jones, who suffered a concussion at Utah, was cleared to return to practice this week.

The Hawkeyes, who blew a 17-point lead in a 36-31 loss to archrival Iowa State, will try to shake off their disappointment against Utah State this week. "It was a a tough loss. Everyone in our program is hurting," coach Kirk Ferentz said. "But as we told the guys before the game, win, lose or draw, we have nine more to go. We have to learn from it, and come back in a better fashion." ... The defeat was the fifth straight for Iowa in the series, including the last three in Iowa City.

After seeing replays of an apparent fumble by Notre Dame quarterback Carlyle Holliday on a play that held up for a touchdown in Michigan's 25-23 loss at Notre Dame, Coach Lloyd Carr had this comment: "You can't print what I think." ... The Wolverines know they have to move on when they play host this week to Utah, which is 2-1 after a controversial 23-17 loss at Arizona. "It's very difficult to maintain a high emotional level for 12 weeks," Carr said. "But there's a challenge every week. Smart teams understand that. If you want to be an outstanding team, you need to improve every week." ... Michigan, which has averaged fewer than seven missed field goals a season since 1997, is 2 for 8 on field goal attempts this season.

Michigan State
The Spartans struggled about every way you can in their 46-22 upset loss to Cal. But special teams play, which was notably disastrous, will be a point of emphasis for Michigan State when it tries to knock off Notre Dame for the sixth straight time. The Spartans gave up a 90-yard punt return for a touchdown, a 56-yard kickoff return and fumbled two kickoff returns in their meltdown against the Golden Bears. "It was a nightmare, that's what it was," said special teams coach Danny Crossman.

The Gophers gave up 428 yards of offense in their 31-21 victory over Toledo, and dropped from first to eighth in the nation in total defense (230 yards a game). With Buffalo, three years removed from Division I-AA status, coming to Minnesota this week, the Gophers hope to tighten up their defense before facing more imposing Big Ten teams. ... Coach Glen Mason wants to give slightly injured tailback Marion Barber III some work against Buffalo to get him ready for Big Ten play. ... It's a remote possibility, but the Gophers are rooting especially hard for the Twins to move up to the No. 2 seed in the American League playoffs. If they wind up as the No. 3 seed, which is much more likely, the Gophers are virtually certain to move their Oct. 5 home game against Illinois to Thursday, Oct. 3, athletic director Joel Maturi said. They also could wind up moving their Oct. 12 game against Northwestern to Oct. 10 if the Twins need the Metrodome.

It would have been unthinkable three weeks ago, but the Wildcats are listed as the underdog by oddsmakers for their game this week at Navy, which had a bye last week. That can be attributed to the surprising 1-1 start of the Midshipmen, who were 0-10 last season, and the Wildcats' 52-3 blowout loss at Air Force, which, like Navy, likes an option offense. "Navy's probably licking their chops after looking at that Air Force tape," said Northwestern coach Randy Walker, who was satisfied with the Cats' modest 26-21 victory over Duke last week. "It's especially bothersome to us that Navy has a couple of weeks to get ready for us."

Ohio State
Freshman tailback sensation Maurice Clarett underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee Tuesday, but could play when the Buckeyes visit Cincinnati Saturday. "I wouldn't call him out because of modern medicine, but at this point, Maurice is questionable," said coach Jim Tressel, who hopes to have a better feel for the situation after practice Thursday. Clarett, who rushed for 230 yards and two touchdowns in Ohio State's 25-7 victory over Washington State, is averaging 157 yards a game, third among the nation's rushers.

Penn State
The Nittany Lions' 40-7 victory over the Cornhuskers was the first for Penn State against a top 10 team since 1999. ... Larry Johnson had 123 yards on 19 carries, the first 100-yard game of the senior tailback's career. It was also the first 100-yard game by a Penn State running back since Eric McCoo had 102 yards at Michigan in 2000. ... After two games, the Nittany Lions are plus-three on turnovers (five takeaways, two giveaways). They had only 12 takeaways all of last season, when they had 23 giveaways, for a minus-11 showing.

Joe Tiller initially said quarterback Kyle Orton had played his worst game in six starts at Purdue after the Boilermakers held off Western Michigan 28-24. But Tiller later backed off, pointing to lack of protection for Orton's wobbly effort, in which he completed 16 of 30 for 216 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. "He didn't play all that poorly, even though he missed some checks. He got hit 19 times when he was trying to get rid of the ball." ... Junior free safety Stuart Schweigert became Purdue's all-time interception leader with his 12th career pickoff against Western Michigan.

Badgers coach Barry Alvarez knows a 24-21 escape from Northern Illinois wasn't pretty, but he also knows Wisconsin is 4-0 even if there have been some wobbly performances. "Northern Illinois did an outstanding job," Alvarez said. "I didn't think we played particularly well, but we're very pleased with our win. I'm pleased that our guys found a way to get the job done." ... Sophomore running back Anthony Davis managed only 49 yards on 14 carries, but quarterback Brooks Bollinger's late two-yard run bailed out the Badgers. "If we don't clean up these mistakes," offensive tackle Ben Johnson said, "we're going to finish in last place."

Around the Independents
Connecticut had some encouraging offensive performances in its 24-3 victory over Buffalo. Leading the way were freshman running back Terry Caulley, who had 136 yards on 26 carries and caught five passes for 40 yards, and tight end Tommy Collins, who caught three passes for 96 yards, including a 50-yard TD. The Huskies, who piled up 429 yards on offense, will try to keep their momentum going, and even their record at 2-2, at home against Ohio U. Saturday. ... Navy can post its first 2-1 start since 1997 with a victory in Annapolis this week over Northwestern, a team it is favored to beat. Coach Paul Johnson wouldn't admit to finding encouragement that Northwestern was routed 52-3 by Air Force in its opener, saying "They can embarrass if we don't play well." A top priority for the Midshipmen is eliminating the mistakes that dogged them in their 65-19 loss to NC State. The Wolfpack scored 28 points off two turnovers and two blocked punts. ... Notre Dame is setting its sights high after its 25-23 upset of Michigan, a victory that establishes the Irish as a serious candidate for a Bowl Championship Series at-large berth. "To beat a ranked team like Michigan was a big win for the whole football program," said cornerback Shane Walton, who knocked down a potential game-tying two-point-conversion pass and intercepted another pass to seal ND's victory. "We just have to build on this. There's going to be so much more enthusiasm now." ... South Florida won't have long to shake off its 42-3 loss at Arkansas, the most lopsided defeat in the program's six-year history. The Bulls, who were spared their first shutout loss by a field goal with 38 seconds left, travel to Oklahoma Saturday. This is the first meeting between Bulls coach Jim Leavitt and Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, who were co-defensive coordinators at Kansas State in the early '90s. South Florida athletic director Lee Roy Selmon starred at Oklahoma before going on to a Hall of Fame career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. ... Troy State used a school-record 464 rushing yards to run past Southern Utah for its first victory of the season. Three Trojans -- Mario Fraser (124 yards on 17 carries), DeWhitt Betterson (120 on seven) and LeBarron Black (100 on 16) -- rushed for more than 100 yards, another school record. Troy State steps up in weight class this week when it travels to Iowa State. ... Utah State held on for a 38-33 victory, its first of the season, over Idaho State, but the win was tempered by the fact that the Aggies had to hang on after opening a 28-0 lead early in the second quarter. " We just didn't close it like we wanted to," coach Mick Dennehy said. Utah State knows it won't be able to afford similar letdown mistakes when it plays at Iowa Saturday.

Herb Gould covers college football for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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