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It's the late winter of Joe Paterno's coaching career, and what a cold time it has become. Following an 18-6 home loss to Wisconsin, the Nittany Lions are 0-2 for the second consecutive season. Their offense has produced a total of 454 yards and scored two touchdowns. The defense has been nothing short of terrible. Miami torched Penn State for 344 yards through the air in a 33-7 rout on Sept. 1; Wisconsin racked up 320 rushing yards and held the ball for 41:53. "Confidence has a shelf life and has to be replenished," Nittany Lions defensive coordinator Tom Bradley says, "and there's no question that our confidence has been shaken."
In November 1999 Penn State was 9-0 and ranked No. 2 in the nation. Since then, including three straight defeats to end the '99 regular season, the Nittany Lions are 6-12. Linebacker U has two former walk-ons starting at that signature position. Penn State, which has had nine first-or second-team All-Big Ten offensive linemen since entering the conference in '93, gave up 4� sacks to Wisconsin defensive tackle Wendell Bryant.
A lack of talent is at the core of the Nittany Lions' decline. Penn State's recruiting classes year after year ranked among the top 10 in the country, but its last two classes were rated 30th and 21st, respectively, by SuperPrep. According to that recruiting magazine, three of Pennsylvania's top six prospects last February signed with Michigan, which had gotten only two players from the state in the previous four years. To make matters worse, the nation's top recruit last year, running back Kevin Jones of Philadelphia's Cardinal O'Hara High, picked Virginia Tech over Penn State, switching a Nittany Lions jersey for a Hokies hat at his press conference. "[ Paterno] kept saying to me, 'How in the world does a kid from Pennsylvania choose Virginia Tech?' " said Jones. "It wasn't easy, because he's such a legend. He wrote me a three-page letter that I still keep, but I felt more comfortable at Tech. I felt like I could talk to all of the coaches, not just one or two."
"You get [from other schools' recruiters], 'He's not going to last more than a couple of years,' " Mark Farris, a 6'6", 285-pound senior at Pittsburgh's North Hills High and Pennsylvania's most hotly recruited lineman, told USA Today. "It's in the back of your mind...but it's not the major thing that sways your choice." Farris is considering Pittsburgh and Florida as well as Penn State.
Paterno is so respected that opposing coaches and NFL executives try to make excuses for the Nittany Lions' drop in talent even as they point it out "They haven't had a quarterback who's going to play in the NFL since Kerry Collins left [in 1994]," says Colts president Bill Polian. "You know what the problem is? The standard Joe has set is the national championship. Penn State had first-round draft choices for 30 years. If you decline slightly, people say, 'What's wrong?' "
Much of the credit for the Nittany Lions' long line of extraordinary linebackers, not to mention their many years of stalwart defenses, went to defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, who retired in 1999 after 32 years in State College. "Most people don't realize how much Jerry meant," says former linebacker Brandon Short, a starter for the Giants. "He was just as much a part of Penn State as Joe Paterno is."
According to another former Nittany Lion, James Boyd, who is a rookie safety with the Jaguars, "When Jerry was there, [ Paterno] would only come by and look at the defense in practice, but once the coordinator changed, he started working more with the defense. He felt he needed to be more hands-on because of the new coaches." Boyd suggests the players' effort, not their talent, is what's in decline. "The problem is that some guys pick their spots instead of playing hard every play," he says.
One coach seems to think something is seriously wrong with Penn State. "Once again, we played like scared rabbits," Paterno said after the Wisconsin loss. "We have to find some guys who are poised and aren't afraid to make plays. We're playing awfully right now. We've got to get better in every area."
At the beginning of last season Paterno, who gives no indication that he intends to retire any time soon and, of course, will never be asked to leave Penn State, had won 317 games, six short of Bear Bryant's career record for Division I-A coaching victories. Paterno still needs one win to tie Bryant Because the Nittany lions' next four games are at Iowa, Michigan, at Northwestern and Ohio State, the possibility of an 0-6 start looms. Whenever Paterno breaks the record, the celebration will likely be muted.
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