Can Penn State’s Recent Big Game Wins be a Blueprint for Alabama?
George Paterno, the late brother of Penn State head coach Joe Paterno, often used to say, “Don’t ever tell Joe he can’t do something, because he’ll work harder than ever to make sure he does it.”
That’s what Penn State president Graham Spanier did in 2004 when he went to Joe’s house, knocked on his door, and asked him to step down. Paterno came back in 2005, worked harder than ever, and led his team to an 11-1 season with a victory over one of his oldest rivals, former Florida State head coach Bobby Bowden.
When Alabama was added to the schedule for 2010 and 2011, many said that Joe Paterno couldn’t lead his team to victory. They’ve been right so far. But Paterno isn’t the type of person to let someone doubt him and be right.
His brother’s words rang true this summer, when players said that Paterno was working them harder than ever. For the first time in awhile, Paterno was walking six miles a day to work and getting in player’s faces like he used to. This was not a man who was taking it easy in his old age.
Of course, that’s assuming that this is all about Joe. It’s not, and it never has been, at least in Joe’s eyes. He balks at any praise of him outside of the team concept, a testament to the man’s humility.
But this is bigger than Joe Paterno for once; this is about Penn State. Paterno has led Penn State into nasty contests with Alabama for many years now with varying results; some good wins, some narrow losses, and even some shutouts. Something that sticks around through the years, however, are the reminders of the games Penn State has lost against Alabama.
The reminders are everywhere. All Paterno needs to do is look down the bench at his fullback, Joe Suhey. It’s been nearly 32 years since the 1979 Sugar Bowl, where his father, fullback Matt Suhey, was stuffed on the goal-line on 3rd down by a stout Alabama defense, costing the Nittany Lions a national championship.
And it’s only been ten years since Paterno’s 324th victory, the one that surpassed legendary Alabama coach Bear Bryant. Of course, that’s only a reminder that Paterno never beat Bryant while he was alive in the three times they faced off.
It’s easy to see why Saturday would be a big deal to both teams, but especially to Paterno. This may be his last chance to beat Alabama and put a nice cap on this aspect of his career. However, the ever humble and focused Paterno probably sees the game on Saturday as a chance for those on last year’s team to redeem themselves and improve upon last year’s performance.
To do that, many things will have to go the Nittany Lions’ way in what will be one of their biggest games in recent memory. The team may look to their recent successes in big games for a blueprint going into the matchup with Alabama.
2010: Penn State 19 - LSU 17
(AP / Charles Rex Arbogast)
Penn State hadn’t won at Ohio State in its entire time as a member of the Big Ten Conference. It was undefeated up to this game, and many people assumed that despite Penn State’s higher ranking, this was an obvious loss. Penn State played lights out defense and scored first (with a field goal) and then ran the ball 37 times at 4 yards a pop. Their run defense was lights out, allowing Ohio State only about 2 ypc. Daryll Clark played pretty well, throwing for 121 yards and running for 39 more before being knocked out of the game with a concussion. Back-up QB Pat Devlin entered the game and handed off for a whole drive and the Nittany Lions scored what was effectively the game winning touchdown. Despite Penn State’s excellent run defense, Terrelle Pryor threw for 226 yards. The Lions won the turnover battle, the time of possession battle, and eventually, the game.
Will This Work Against Alabama?
Maybe. One factor we need to take into account is the tendency of the coaches to go into a shell on the road, so this may not be where the game plan is headed Saturday. However, there is a chance Penn State could pull this one off. With a talented defense and an experienced secondary, there is no reason the Lions shouldn’t be able to keep Alabama out of the endzone. Alabama also turned the ball over a whopping five times against Kent State. If the Lions can force turnovers and run the ball on Alabama’s vaunted defense (which is a big “if,”) the Lions may be able to employ the strategy they used against Ohio State in 2008.
2005: Penn State 17 - Ohio State 10
(Joe Hermitt, The Patriot News)
This is the game that effectively ended the idea that Penn State would ever return to the “dark years” where they didn’t make a bowl game and didn’t even have a season above .500. It was loud enough that the noise registered as an earthquake on a seismometer. This game is legendary.
Penn State’s stats, on the other hand, were not. They were 3-13 on 3rd down, only threw for 78 yards, and lost the time of possession battle. Despite these terrible statistics, the Nittany Lions forced two turnovers, one of which knocked future Heisman winner Troy Smith on his head. The Nittany Lions themselves did not give up the ball once, and played solid defense. It was as good of a defensive game I’ve ever seen on both sides of the ball.
Will This Work Against Alabama?
Again, maybe. This strategy calls for one of the best defensive performances the Nittany Lions have put together in some time. It also calls for them to win the turnover battle, a common theme of these games.
So how do all these games relate to Saturday collectively?
The common thread in these games has been the ability to shut down the run, force turnovers, and stay away from dumb mistakes on offense. Exceptional special teams play is also a must.
Penn State has a good defense. Alabama has a good defense. Considering that the three games Penn State won above all featured tough defenses (2005 Ohio State #5 in Total Defense, 2008 Ohio State #14, 2009 LSU #26), it’s not hard to see why I feel that Saturday’s game is similar in some ways. Penn State also had a top 15 defense all of those years, and won the turnover battle in all of those games. Alabama turned the ball over a whopping 5 times last Saturday against a MAC opponent Kent State; Penn State didn’t turn the ball over at all.
The special teams aspect of the game is still up in the air. I know kicker Anthony Fera is returning from a suspension, but it’s hard to say whether he will be just as good as he was with such a long time off.
Still, the pieces are there for Penn State to put together another big win. It may seem crazy to some, but Penn State can win this game. And if Penn State has prevailed when the clocks strike zero on Saturday, George Paterno’s words will once again ring true.
Aaron Hefelfinger is a senior majoring in Telecommunications. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.