Paterno finally settled on Strang as his quarterback and made wholesale changes to shore up the secondary, but still the Lions struggled. A few fans began to boo. Reporters began to ask tougher questions. Suddenly a couple of writers were taking potshots at Paterno, claiming that he wasn't a classy loser. "I don't read newspapers [during the fall]," he says, "and my secretary handles all my hate mail, which I'll answer after the season."
Paterno has been testy with the media at times this fall. When one reporter asked him to compare Dozier with Warner, he snapped, "Aw, just let the kid play, O.K.?" Then, three days before the Alabama game, amid the 1,000th round of questioning about Penn State's 1983 difficulties, Paterno let loose something of a diatribe. "I think some of my players are shooting their mouths off too much," he said. "That's been part of the problem with this team from the beginning. We had some people who made some statements before we ever played a game, about how good we were going to be here, how good we were going to be there and what have you. You don't win any games by talking about it. We'd be better off if we'd kept our mouths shut."
Nevertheless, whether this year or next, both Paterno and his Lions are headed for happier days. Besides the rapidly improving Strang, who going into this season hadn't started a game since high school, Penn State is loaded with good freshmen and sophomores, six of whom already play regularly. Most notable among them is the 6'1", 196-pound Dozier, who took over the starting tailback position from Williams in mid-September and since then has had four consecutive 100-yard games. Dozier has already broken the Nittany Lions' freshman rushing record, with 619 yards on 92 carries, and has unleashed spectacular slashing runs of 64, 57 and 50 yards. "I think before the year is over everybody in Pennsylvania is going to forget Curt Warner," said Alabama Coach Ray Perkins on Saturday. "From where I was standing it looked as if [Dozier] had gained 300 yards."
Dozier, a quiet 18-year-old from Virginia Beach, Va., grew up idolizing O.J. Simpson, though those who saw him play in high school likened him to Kelvin Bryant. At Penn State, on the other hand, his teammates say the similarities between Dozier and Warner, both in running style and personality, are eerie. "You could tell back in camp that D.J. was something special, that he had something only God gives you," says Kenny Jackson, the Lions' All-America flanker. "He's going to leave his mark here."
None of the Lions wants to leave his mark as being part of Penn State's first sub-.500 team since 1938; the school takes pride in having the longest streak of non-losing seasons in NCAA history. But the 1983 defeats may pay off in the long run. "I'm excited for these guys next year," says Gattuso. "They're going to have a great team. For one thing, they'll have picked up a valuable lesson from us." He paused and then grinned weakly. "Just too bad we had to learn it."