turn back time exactly one year. It is October 9, 2004
and Penn State has just lost their third straight game
of the early football season, this time in front of
the home crowd, to drop to 2-4. Happy Valley is in disarray.
Students and fans are in their seats ringing out chants
of “Joe Must Go!” The hot seat is getting
warmer by the day for the 77-year old head coach after
38 seasons of calling the shots in State College.
For those in today’s get-rich-quick, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately
train of thought, now is the time to listen and learn.
Fast forward: the time is now October 9, 2005 and an
undefeated Penn State is in sole possession of first
place in the Big Ten after just beating a then-No.6
Ohio State team that many felt would end up winning
the conference. The chants now ring out, “Joe
The second largest crowd (109,839 in attendance) ever
to witness a game at Beaver Stadium sat through a misty
overcast Saturday night and cheered. Well, they did
more than just cheer. This central Pennsylvania town
was in total pandemonium from beginning to end. The
encounter was the most intimidating stadium experience
ever for this writer, and I’ve seen a bunch. That
includes football being played across a Southeast where
fall Saturdays are just about paramount to (or the same
as) religion. Watching Auburn’s Bo Jackson rush
for over 250 yards at a high pitched Jordan Hare Stadium
during his 1985 Heisman campaign paled in comparison
to this frenzy - this was a primetime night game on
ESPN. However, as one walked around the confines of
Beaver Stadium earlier in the (light of) day, the hordes
of fans wearing blue and white gear ablaze would have
made a gunfight at the O.K. Corral feel like a baby
A baby shower metaphor? Yes, for Joe Paterno has turned
this ship around with the help of true freshmen. The
addition of Justin King (Pittsburgh, PA) and Derrick
Williams (Greenbelt, MD – stolen right from Ralph
Friedgen’s back yard) from last season’s
recruiting class cannot be overlooked. King plays both
receiver and cornerback, while Williams has lined up
as a receiver, tailback, quarterback and kick returner.
The duo has combined for 13.9 yards per touch and six
touchdowns through six games. That’s two freshmen
accounting for nearly a third of the team’s total
yardage and almost a quarter of its TDs. The recruiting
game apparently has not passed JoePa by.
Note how Alabama, Notre Dame and Penn State are currently
in the AP Top 10. Why have these traditional powers
found their resurgence(s) after some long stretches
of atypical play? Much of it relates to coaching and
the realization that college football has evolved offensively.
Specifically, the term “spread offense”
has revolutionized the game. Not all teams use a spread
offense in its true definition, but many, like Penn
State, utilize some of its quirky dimensions. And some
of that has to do with spreading the field (and defenses)
from sideline to sideline, opening spaces for your speed
athletes, creating room for mismatches (receivers on
linebackers), and using backs like you’d find
in the old Wing-T to conceal the ball. Taking advantage
of speed and athleticism on the offensive side is something
coaches at all the three previously-mentioned schools
have finally adopted.
Under this umbrella of thought, the PSU offense (under
new offensive coordinator Galen Hall) has evolved. The
biggest difference surrounds senior QB Michael Robinson.
While Robinson still has not proven he can beat opponents
solely with his arm, coaches have put him in a position
that best suits his abilities, that being in a shotgun
formation where the variable of his feet make him ever
so dangerous. Defenses now have to account for Robinson
running the draw every single play. In turn, the passing
game is improving enough to win games that in the past
required a staunch defense to bail them out.
Oh, defense is still winning games in State College.
The Nittany Lions had one of last season’s top
defenses (ranked 10th) and returned ten starters. Among
them are names such as Posluszny, Hali, Zemaitis and
Connor. The defense held the Buckeye’s vaunted
offense to just 230 yards, making both a key INT (that
led to a score) and fumble-causing sacks, the last of
which ended OSU’s final drive with 1:21 left.
Some things need not change.
This season, Paterno has entered the 21st century with
a more wide-open, innovative offensive approach. Paterno
had to accept change before the next change was to be
his own forced, premature retirement. Regardless of
how this team finishes out, it’s safe to say that,
from what we witnessed last Saturday night, Penn State
is back. And, as the Nittany naysayers spin their web,
Paterno gets the last laugh. He is Penn State!