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His own team had been out of the running since the fourth week of the season, following consecutive losses to Ohio State, Iowa and Kentucky. At that point, Paterno installed freshmen Bruce Clark and Matt Millen at linebacker and shifted Mike Guman from safety to running back. Sophomore Chuck Fusina took over at quarterback (53% passing for 1,260 yards), and the Nittany Lions ran off six straight wins before the matter of Eastern supremacy was settled with a 24-7 loss to Pitt.
This year Paterno is somewhat noncommittal about his still-young team's chances. Of 30 returnees, only 11 are seniors, but the entire offensive backfield and 19 of the first 22 on defense are lettermen. "I think we're going to have a good team in 1977," he says. "The alumni think 'good' means right at the top. I'm not so sure."
His main task, aside from patching up the offensive line, may be picking a starting tailback from among four candidates: Guman, Steve Geise, Duane Taylor and Ed Guthrie. "Tailbacks are like horses," says Paterno. "You've got to run them to tell how good they are." Their form charts, according to Paterno, go like this: "Geise has intensity, Guman smoothness, Guthrie balance, Taylor quickness." Two problems: Taylor comes back from knee surgery and Guthrie was hampered by a leg injury in the spring. If none of them works out, the coach may go with a freshman—6'1", 185-pound Booker Moore.
At least the fullbacks—Matt Suhey (five touchdowns, 3.9 yards per carry) and Bob Torrey (4.4 yards per carry)—are fit. And if the line matures, Fusina will do lots of passing to Flanker Jimmy Cefalo (14 catches) and Tight End Mickey Shuler (21 catches, three TDs).
On defense, Penn State will look like, well, Penn State. The entire secondary returns, along with a slew of experienced linemen, notably sophomores Clark and Millen, and senior Randy Sidler, who will shuttle between tackle and middle guard as the Nittany Lions occasionally shift out of their famous 4-4 and experiment with a 5-3 alignment.
Paterno would love to develop his young team slowly. No such luxury. Everything goes on the line early. After the Sept. 2 opener with Rutgers, Penn State has a week off, then faces Houston, Maryland and Kentucky—all at home, though. If the Lions are 4-0 on Oct. 2, this could be the year—Penn State's.
Assessing the quality of this year's Buffalo herd is a snap. Colorado will be big and fast. With 14 of last year's starters on hand, fourth-year Coach Bill Mallory (22 wins, 13 losses) feels comfortable enough about his future in Boulder to have bought himself a homestead outside of town. And like its coach Colorado's talent-laden team seems to have gained the conviction and audacity needed to turn the Big Eight into a three-team race.
Granted the Buffs shared the conference championship with Oklahoma and Oklahoma State last season, and went to the Orange Bowl because they had beaten both the Sooners (42-31) and the Cowboys (20-10). But 1976 was not a typical year in the Big Eight. Since the conference reached its present size in 1960, Oklahoma and Nebraska, the two juggernauts, have won or tied for the league title 15 times between them. Last year Oklahoma lost two games, Nebraska three. Colorado was picked to finish sixth in the 1976 preseason poll, and might have ended up there but for the emergence of Quarterback Jeff Knapple, a Boulder product who transferred to Colorado after spending a disappointing freshman year at UCLA and led the Buffaloes to an 8-3 overall record.
A sophomore last fall, Knapple engineered five touchdowns in five possessions during a 45-24 thrashing of Drake. He led the Buffs to 265 yards total offense in one quarter as Colorado crushed Iowa State 33-14, and he added 286 more during a furious comeback against Oklahoma that produced the most points scored against the Sooners since 1969. In eight games the 6'2", 202-pounder passed for 904 yards and averaged nearly four yards a carry.