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November 30, 2023

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Paterno has PSU in a downward spiral

Maybe it’s just a coincidence that the toughest stretch of Joe Paterno’s career arrives as the hourglass is about to turn over on his 78th year.

Or maybe not.

After just one losing season in his first 34 at Penn State, Paterno was guaranteed his fourth in the last five following a 21-10 beating Saturday at Ohio State. During that run, the Nittany Lions have lost not just their teeth, but their aura. By now, it’s fair to ask whether they’re likely to regain either as long as Paterno remains in charge.

Last season, skeptics doubted his play-calling and clock-management skills, as well as whether a coach who defined the term “old school” could maintain discipline on a squad filled out by the “me-first” generation. Despite a 3-9 finish, Penn State’s administration gave him a four-year contract extension, hoping to soothe critics as well as recruits by making it clear that JoePa would be around for a while. Already, the deal has had the opposite effect.

Paterno keeps saying, “We’re not that far off,” but there is nothing to substantiate that, and no one who has the coach’s ear seems inclined to pass the message along. It’s increasingly apparent that Penn State can’t score enough to be competitive in the Big Ten, can’t win on the road and can no longer take anybody in the conference for granted.

On top of that, Paterno hasn’t proven that he can compete with the league’s “Big Two,” Michigan and Ohio State, for topflight recruits on a regular basis and even whether he can still develop the talent he does have.

Playing at home 10 days ago, Penn State managed just two safeties in a 6-4 loss to Iowa, and one of those was a gift. In the Ohio State game, the Buckeyes ran a total of six plays and netted just 12 yards in the first quarter, but led 14-0. What tied those two latest losses together was the performance of quarterback Michael Robinson. He filled in for injured starter Zack Mills and closed out the Iowa game with two interceptions and a fumble on the final three plays, then began the Ohio State game by throwing two interceptions in his first three pass attempts.

The point is not to blame Robinson, who, after all, takes most of his snaps in practice as a wide receiver and running back, was coming back from a severe neck injury, and found himself playing behind the same porous offensive line that couldn’t protect Mills from a concussion in the Iowa game. The point is that Robinson probably shouldn’t have been playing QB in the first place, a fact that Paterno is either too blind or stubborn to acknowledge.

A few weeks ago, even as the offensive problems continued to mount — Penn State averaged fewer than seven points per game in five losses under Mills — Paterno insisted that had Robinson been playing, the Nittany Lions would have beaten Wisconsin, Minnesota and Purdue.

Asked what evidence that was based on, the coach simply said, “I have coached great football players for 55 years. If I tell you that Michael Robinson is one of the best football players I have ever coached and one of the best in the country, don’t question me.”

And just last week, when the available evidence on Robinson suggested otherwise, and the Nittany Lions’ sorry record practically begged for freshman Anthony Morelli to get his shot, Paterno insisted the youngster wasn’t adequately prepared to face Ohio State.

When a writer asked, “Why not?” Paterno replied, “He’s not adequately prepared.”

Asked whether Morelli knew the plays, Paterno said again, “He’s not adequately prepared.”

The troubling part, beyond Paterno’s obstinacy, is that his son, Jay, happens to be Penn State’s quarterbacks coach. The Nittany Lions have games left against Northwestern, Indiana and Michigan State, and rather than worry about winning those, it would serve the program better to find out as soon as possible if Jay Paterno can make certain that Morelli is “adequately prepared” to face the future.

After all, it’s one thing for JoePa, who practically built the program from scratch, won two national championships and personally donated $4 million, to feel a sense of entitlement. It’s quite another when his kid starts feeling the same way.

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