STATE COLLEGE -- Never in his 42 years as head coach at Penn State did Joe Paterno have to send off his seniors this early.
Though Saturday’s 26-19 win over Purdue marked the final home game for 17 of his players, Paterno wasn’t caught off guard when it came to sharing his feelings about the senior class.
The Nittany Lions still have two regular-season tilts and a bowl game left this season, but regardless of what happens in them, Paterno will have especially fond memories of the departing players.
Two of them in particular -- Dan Connor and Anthony Morelli, who made it through in four years -- helped revitalize Penn State’s recruiting efforts.
They were two of the most highly recruited players in the country coming out of high school, and both decided to sign with PSU. Both players signed despite a hideous 3-9 performance by Penn State just a few months earlier -- the worst season ever under Paterno.
“I told (the whole team), I said, ‘You know, everybody owes an awful lot to this senior class because they came in here when we had (losing seasons),’” Paterno said. “They came in here, trusted the program, believed in Penn State, believed in the coaching staff, and since they started to play, we had a great year two years ago and a good year last year and the two New Year’s Day Bowls.
“I said, ‘We owe them a lot.’ And I do owe them a lot. I tried to make sure we did the best we could to win this one, their last home game.”
That influx of big-name talent helped land two more important players in the 2005 class -- Derrick Williams and Justin King, among others. Penn State then put together an 11-1 season and followed it up with one of their best overall recruiting classes in years.
Morelli, despite having an up-and-down career with the fans and in his record as a starter, will end up being one of the more proficient quarterbacks in Penn State history. Thanks to a 210-yard effort on Saturday, he became the first Lions QB to throw for 2,000 yards in multiple seasons.
“No regrets,” Morelli said of his decision to come to Penn State, despite facing plenty of scrutiny from media and fans alike.
“To go out on top with a win meant a lot to us. We focused on that a lot all week -- to come out and give it everything we have. At least we can remember that we won our last home game.”
Connor’s impact, of course, has been more obvious. The linebacker set the school’s career tackles record on Saturday and has three games remaining to add to his total of 379, likely destroying the mark of 372 set a year ago by Paul Posluszny.
It was Posluszny who hosted Connor on his official recruiting visit to Penn State, and the two of them talked about turning things around for the demoralized program.
Four years later, Connor feels he helped do that. Paterno agrees with him.
“I know he got emotional just talking about the guys going out of the tunnel for the last time,” Connor said. “Guys put so much into the program, worked hard all year. It being the last hurrah at home, he got a little emotional and seeing him like that, it has an effect on you and the team. It motivated us a lot.”
“They’re a great bunch of kids,” Paterno said. “That’s not the greatest class of athletes we’ve ever had, but even the ones that didn’t get to play -- there’s three or four kids out there who are walk-ons -- have made a contribution. I think they’re a special group in a different way than maybe you would think.”
For more Penn State coverage, read Derek Levarse’s blog at www.timesleader.com