Five Minute Guide to '99
1 Penn State
Paterno's best team since the 12-0 '94 squad could give him some championship hardware for his new building
The building is more than a little like the team Paterno will send out to play the 1999 season: glittering but cause for the coach's customary suspicion. "We're going to be good," Paterno says. "How good, I don't know." But some of Paterno's actions betray a belief that this could be a championship year. To begin building unity, he allowed the team to elect captains for the coming season during spring practice. (Senior quarterback Kevin Thompson and senior linebacker Brandon Short were chosen.) It's the first time in more than a decade that the Nittany Lions have strayed from their practice of naming captains for each game, then electing team captains before their bowl game. Paterno also snapped up the chance to open the season in the Pigskin Classic against a strong Arizona team and has been more vigilant than usual in enforcing his policy that players live on campus. "Joe knows this can be a special year and doesn't want anything to mess it up," says one player.
Paterno won't go nearly that far. "All we've got right now," he said, "is a lot of good players."
The Nittany Lions' defense, which didn't allow a single opposing running back to gain 100 yards last year, has nine starters back. Four of them -- junior outside linebacker LaVar Arrington, senior defensive end Courtney Brown, senior cornerback David Macklin and Short -- are likely first-round NFL draft choices. Brown could go in the top five, and so could Arrington if he gives up his final year of eligibility. The 6'5", 270-pound Brown is a humble force who was unblockable by the end of last season. He finished with 11 1/2 sacks and 23 tackles for losses, yet he ends interviews by softly saying, "God bless you." Macklin craves man-to-man coverage, no surprise from someone who claims to have played Allen Iverson to a stalemate in high school basketball games in Virginia. Arrington and Short combine with steady senior Mac Morrison to form a trio that restores the good name of Linebacker U.
It is a glut of talent that rivals that of the Penn State offense of '94, when tailback Ki-Jana Carter (first), quarterback Kerry Collins (fifth) and tight end Kyle Brady (ninth) were all taken early in the first round of the draft. "Teams are going to have to shut us out to beat us," says Arrington. The defense will get a small slice of extra motivation in playing for Paterno's longtime defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky, who has announced that he will retire from coaching at the end of the season, his 32nd in Happy Valley.
Much like that '94 team, which went 12-0, won the Rose Bowl and finished second to Nebraska in both major polls, one side of the ball is an answer and the other a question. In losses last year to Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin, Penn State scored a total of 12 points. Most of the blame for the offense's failure fell at the feet of quarterback Kevin Thompson, now a senior, although Paterno also got heat for not giving more playing time to then sophomore Rashard Casey.
Thompson completed only 53.5% of his passes and threw two more interceptions (eight) than touchdowns (six). As a captain he's expected to be the starter. "He's ahead of Casey, but if Casey comes on, I'll play them both," says Paterno. Judging by Thompson's performance in season-ending wins over Michigan State (8 of 16, 103 yards, no interceptions) and Kentucky in the Outback Bowl (14 of 27, 187 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions), he could be a more mature, productive player this season. "I feel 10 years older than I was last year," says Thompson. "I had to mature, and I did. I heard some cheers, but I heard a lot of 'You suck.' That made me stronger." Thompson is just three credits short of his degree in kinesiology, which means that for his last autumn in Happy Valley he'll have little to distract him. "It's football, mainly, for this year," he says.
The quarterback will benefit from playing behind an experienced offensive line and from being able to hand the ball to sophomore running back Eric McCoo, who led the team in rushing with 822 yards, the most for a true freshman at Penn State since D.J. Dozier ran for 1,002 in 1983. Backing up McCoo is senior Cordell Mitchell, a starter until he missed the last four games of the season with a pinched nerve in his right shoulder. Receivers Corey Jones and Chafie Fields combined for 52 catches a year ago, but both suffered when reliable senior wideout Joe Nastasi was injured and defenses focused more on them. "Wideout is our biggest area to get better," says Paterno.
It's a nitpick, of course. Penn State hasn't had a better team since '94, and this one has more balance. The schedule is perfectly suited to a national title run, with the opener against Arizona, a tough nonleague road game at Miami on Sept. 18 and Ohio State and Michigan visiting State College. Expectations are deservedly high. Of course, JoePa needs those like a hole in the head.
-- Tim Layden
1998 record: 9-3, 5-3, 5th in Big Ten)
Coach: Joe Paterno
Aug. 28 vs. Arizona
Oct. 16 vs. Ohio State
If Thompson is anything better than adequate at quarterback, Paterno's dominating defense will send the Nittany Lions to the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 4 for a shot at his third national championship.
Five Minute Guide to '99
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