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19. Penn State

Joe Pa needs seven wins to pass the Bear. With an unproven defense, it won't be easy

By Mark Bechtel

The Book
An opposing team's coach sizes up the Nittany Lions

"They have a lot of holes on defense, but offensively they have got experienced players at every position and should score a lot of points.... Casey throws the ball awfully well, but he runs even better. He's very elusive, and they'll call a lot of bootlegs and waggles for him.... At running back McCoo isn't a speed merchant but he makes tacklers miss.... Kareem McKenzie might be the best offensive lineman in the Big Ten."

Sports IllustratedHow intense is senior defensive end Justin Kurpeikis? Consider that the class he chose to take over the summer was Intensive Spanish, which required him to master enough of the language to earn 12 credit hours in only eight weeks. It was a fitting choice, because Kurpeikis doesn't approach anything at less than full speed. Playing alongside LaVar Arrington, Courtney Brown and Brandon Short, Kurpeikis finished 1999 with nine sacks and 39 solo tackles, doing so without the benefit of being, like the now-departed trio of All-Americas, a freakish physical specimen. "He's not as big and strong as someone like Courtney, but he's aggressive and relentless," says coach Joe Paterno. "He's a good, tough football player."

Penn State The defense lost a fleet of stars to the NFL, but the voracious Kurpeikis says the young Lions are hungry. 
Damian Strohmeyer
Since Kurpeikis is the only returning defensive player who started more than seven games last year, Tom Bradley, who was promoted to defensive coordinator after Jerry Sandusky retired last year, must rely on some raw troops this year. "We're going to have young guys who have been waiting in the wings like I was, standing three feet from the field and not being able to play," says Kurpeikis. "That makes you hungry."

Offensively the Nittany Lions have more experience but still plenty of questions. Quarterback Rashard Casey, who last year split time with Kevin Thompson (who graduated), proved to be as good as advertised. He completed more than 60% of his passes and had a quarterback rating of 153.94 and was also the team's second-leading rusher. The man he trailed, tailback Eric McCoo, is also back, as are wideout Eddie Drummond (18.6 yards per reception) and tight end Tony Stewart (19.0 yards per catch). During the summer, however, Casey was charged with the aggravated assault of an off-duty police officer in New Jersey. The senior signal-caller has pleaded not guilty, and Paterno says that Casey is still his starter, but the case could drag on into the fall.

Paterno is seven victories shy of surpassing Bear Bryant's Division I-A record for career wins, but he's not at all sure he'll reach the milestone this season. "We're not very talented," he says. But if Casey is steering the potent offense, Kurpeikis vows there will be no lack of effort from the inexperienced defense.

Issue date: August 14, 2000

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