Tate: We'd be silly to count out Paterno again
Every time Joe Paterno appears to be dazed and on the ropes, he comes back swinging.
His critics were gaining strength a decade ago when Penn State hit a five-year lull in which it missed four bowl games and went 26-33.
But the Nittany Lions caught fire again in 2005, losing only to Michigan 27-25 in an 11-1 campaign, and they produced 11-2 records in 2008 and 2009. Not bad, huh?
And yet, at age 84 and with his body feeling crankiness from recent hip and knee injuries, Paterno seemed far removed from the action as he sat in the press box, seemingly just watching and not connected by a headphone, while Alabama punished his athletes for the second year in a row. The margin in consecutive Alabama losses is 51-14. The Nittany Lions, 7-6 last year, were hammered by Illinois 33-13 and now have lost four of their last six games, with the only wins against Indiana and Indiana State.
Paterno calls coaching "an incentive to be in good health" and says he has recovered sufficiently from knee and hip problems to once again take morning walks. He still may be the dominant voice in the film room and weeklong planning sessions. He remains the CEO, and Rivals.com has Penn State No. 14 in recruiting with 17 commitments of which seven have four-star ratings.
But the assistants are doing nearly all the coaching on game day. And the voices in opposition are starting to rise again.
Of Saturday's trek to Philadelphia, Paterno appeared to exaggerate when he said: "This is the best Temple team I've seen in 60 years ... more physical than any, solid across the board."
Truth is, this may not be the walkover game that it has been the last five years. But regardless of how Saturday turns out, the schedule setup favors Penn State to be bowl eligible before finishing against Illinois, Nebraska, Ohio State and Wisconsin.
Sweet home Chicago
Everybody keeps trying to "take Chicago," and nobody is winning. It's a pro town, and college football only matters when Notre Dame is good. There are those of us who remember, in a bygone day, Chicago Tribune scribes in the UI press box with their radios tuned to the Notre Dame game while covering the Illini. That revealed all you needed to know.
Northwestern has the geographical edge but, for all the costly advertising and billboards, the Wildcats drew 28,042 for Saturday's 42-21 defeat of Eastern Illinois in Evanston.
Iowa was the last Big Ten team to play in the Bears' playpen, beating Northern Illinois 16-3 in 2007. This week it is Wisconsin's turn to try, coach Bret Bielema saying the Badgers used the Iowa contract as a guide for Saturday's game against Northern Illinois at Soldier Field.
"This is a unique opportunity," said Bielema, mindful that it is NIU's home game ... but not really.
"We're hoping for a great crowd for college football. We were concerned about the field conditions, but we're told the turf is solid. This gives our athletes a chance to play in a pro venue and is easy driving distance for our fans."
Illinois tried it in 1994, Lou Tepper's last bowl team falling in the opener to Washington State 10-9 in front of a Soldier Field crowd announced at 39,472. It had nowhere near the electric atmosphere of the UI-Northwestern game last season at Wrigley Field, and the Illini haven't tried the Soldier Field experiment since.
Back at it
While you're at it, explain this one:
Nebraska's Cornhuskers rumbled into Seattle last September and ran all over Washington. Bo Pelini's gang of marauders reeled off 383 yards on the ground and accumulated 49 points by the middle of the third quarter before coasting in with the reserves, 56-21.
This could be described as a laugher. Nebraska was overwhelmingly superior.
And yet, when these same teams met again Dec. 30 in the Holiday Bowl, the underdog Huskies stuffed Nebraska's vaunted attack and won a clear-cut 19-7 decision. Nebraska totaled more penalty yards (102) than either rushing (91) or passing (98).
Saturday will be the rubber match in one of two important Big Ten vs. Pac-12 games (Illinois-Arizona State is the other),
"There'll be a lot of familiarity in our game, and the motivation should be there," Pelini said, "but like everybody else, we have a game plan. At the end of the day, it'll come down to execution. We've been inconsistent, but we found a way Saturday (a comeback 42-29 win against Fresno)."
Touted quarterback Taylor Martinez had a shaky aerial game (10 of 21 with two interceptions) but ran for 166 yards.
Big Ten tidbits
— Luke Fickell will take "10 to 12 guys from the Miami area" back close to home for Ohio State's trip to Miami. But Buckeye Nation is concerned about a native Ohioan. Ballyhooed freshman Braxton Miller threw no passes in the nervous 27-22 win against Toledo, Fickell preferring to stick with senior Joe Bauserman. Fickell said he has a plan for both quarterbacks Saturday.
— If any team is headed for a letdown, it might be Michigan. The passions released in Saturday night's stunning defeat of Notre Dame will make it hard to refocus against a 2-0 Eastern Michigan team. Everyone up North still is talking about the "fun atmosphere" of that contest and the remarkable pass-catching show by Wolverines receivers.
— Whether he plays against Army on Saturday, Northwestern star Dan Persa (Achilles' heel) is expected to be available for the Big Ten opener Oct. 1 at Illinois. Meanwhile, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald is deep into preparations for Army, noting: "This is a completely different, non-traditional challenge. We won't face anything this season that tests us schematically like this triple option. They dominated the ball against San Diego State (403 yards rushing) but lost 23-20 because of three lost fumbles. They're different defensively, too. They load the box and dare you to throw."
— Aware that his Hoosiers are last in Big Ten rushing, Indiana coach Kevin Wilson acknowledged: "We lack a physical presence, and we need our running backs to get more yards after contact. We are behind in that area." Indiana is also last in rushing defense.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.