Penn State coach Joe Paterno listens to a question during his weekly news conference on Tuesday in State College. Penn State takes on at Illinois Saturday in Champaign, Ill.AP PHOTO
There are some flaws in these 2009 Nittany Lions. After playing a third of the season, some of them look to be significant.
When those blemishes are exposed – such as they were in Penn State’s 21-10 loss to Iowa on Saturday – Joe Paterno tends to go on the defensive.
The Penn State coach spent much of his weekly press conference on Tuesday downplaying the factors that sunk the Lions against the Hawkeyes.
Certainly the most obvious gaffe was the blocked punt that led to Iowa’s winning touchdown in the fourth quarter. Paterno turned that into a comparison of his first national championship team.
“It reminded me of when we played Alabama in ’82. We got licked,” Paterno said. “Not as early as this (game), but somewhere in the middle of the season. We blocked the punt. The personal protector backed up into the punter, and they blocked the punt and got a touchdown out of it and went on to beat us. So that reminded me of that.
“I think (the special teams) were better. We covered kickoffs better.”
On his team’s four turnovers, which included three interceptions by Daryll Clark and one Evan Royster fumble:
“Remember when Bobby Engram dropped three punts in one game?” Paterno said. “Kids have days. And you’ve got to just fight your way through them.”
On the offensive line, which struggled to open holes for Royster and give Clark time in the pocket:
“Obviously, nobody wants to get licked, but I think there are things that can be learned from it,” he said. “Our kids, we had talked last week, some people asked me, ‘how good are we?’ And I said, ‘you never know how good you are until you get into a tough football game – see how your kids react to it.’ And I thought that we hung in there.”
It’s a common strategy by Paterno, who’s had some time to perfect it in his 60 seasons as a coach at Penn State. With the hope of a national title run critically damaged, Paterno still has to keep his players’ spirits up high.
The No. 13 Lions head out on the road this weekend to play Illinois in their first game away from Beaver Stadium this season.
“We’ve got to find out if we’ve got some fighters,” he said. “It’s as simple as that. If you get knocked down, you feel sorry for yourself. You get up angry. I think they’ll be angry. I think we’ll do well.”
Sean Lee’s injured knee has kept him from returning to practice early this week, and his status for Saturday is unknown.
Lee sprained his left knee against Temple two weeks ago. The senior linebacker suited up for last week’s loss against Iowa, sporting a brace on the knee, but did not play.
“That’s a medical decision,” Paterno said. “He didn’t practice Monday, and I would doubt he’ll practice (Tuesday). I think we’ll go from there. I know this sounds evasive, but it’s literally a day-to-day thing. Sean’s always pushing – ‘I can go. I can go. I can go,’ – but that’s his personality and his competitive nature. The doctors have to take everything into consideration. They can’t let him go too soon.”
Lee said Tuesday he would likely have to wear the brace and adjust to it when he is allowed to return to the field.
Fellow linebackers Navorro Bowman and Nate Stupar are expected to be at full health for Saturday.
Defensive tackle Brandon Ware is still “at least two weeks” away from returning from a broken bone in his foot, according to Paterno.
Penn State’s offensive line still isn’t settled heading into the fifth week of the season. Sophomore DeOn’tae Pannell started the first four games of the season at right tackle, but he was replaced in the second quarter against Iowa by fifth-year senior Nerraw McCormack.
“Right now, McCormack would start if we played tomorrow,” Paterno said. “I think he deserves a shot at it, and we’ve been debating whether to get him in there or not. He’s worked hard. I think he deserves a shot.”