Penn State stakes claim to Big Ten title


by Todd Helmick

October 12, 2005

Let’s 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 Must Stay!”

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 shower.

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!