LOS ANGELES — The pain is basically gone, but that’s not what concerns Joe Paterno now.
Penn State’s 82-year-old coach has been gradually building his stamina back up since arriving out in California in hopes of returning to the sideline to coach in Thursday’s Rose Bowl against USC.
Though Paterno says he feels remarkably better since having much-needed hip replacement surgery in November, he still isn’t as spry as he used to be.
“I feel great, it’s just that the leg gets a little tired,” he said Tuesday at a brief press conference. “I don’t have a problem with pain ... it’s just that I can’t make a lot of quick movements yet. A lot of people are scared to death someone’s gonna run into to me on the sideline.
“I don’t want it to get to be a distraction if I’m down there. But I’d love to be on the sideline.”
Given that, it seems likely that Paterno will spend the game up in the coaches booth, where he has overseen the team since the sixth game of the season.
Galen Hall didn’t flinch when asked if the Nittany Lions’ offense was going to scale back any of its gameplan in the wake of backup quarterback Pat Devlin’s transfer.
“No,” the offensive coordinator said frankly. “We hope to run our offense like we always would and realize that gives us the strongest chance to win.”
The concern would be that starter Daryll Clark wouldn’t be given as much freedom to run the ball for fear of him getting injured.
It’s an understandable concern, given that Penn State altered some things earlier in the season when the coaching staff was concerned about Clark’s health.
Even with Devlin still on the roster, the coaches lessened Clark’s workload in the Lions’ loss out at Iowa in the wake of a concussion he suffered the game before. The designed keepers and read options that Clark typically would have run went instead to receiver Derrick Williams, who took several snaps at quarterback.
Without Devlin, fifth-year senior Paul Cianciolo is the top backup, and the lanky signal caller wouldn’t seem to be the optimal guy to run Penn State’s current offense.
“The ride’s not exactly been what I thought it might be, but the journey’s just as important as the destination,” Cianciolo said of his career as a third-stringer. “Being here now as the No. 2 for this game and the chance to play and prepare is great.”
Sean Lee’s role was that of a pseudo coach this season, helping out linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden from the sideline while recovering from a torn ACL suffered in the spring.
Lee, who used a redshirt this year and will return for a fifth and final season at linebacker in 2009, said he’s been cleared by the medical staff and is looking forward to getting back onto the field.
“The rehab’s fine. Physically, I’m 100 percent,” Lee said. “It’s just, come the springtime, I’ll be able to practice more, finally put the pads back on and do a little bit of work.”
Of course, the flip side of that is that it’s hard to stand around watching everyone else play.
“Oh, even in practice it’s tough,” Lee said. “I wanna be out there practicing with the team, I wanna be a part of it physically. But it’s just not practical. Injuries are a part of playing football.”
The Big Ten put seven teams into bowl games this season, and six of them were underdogs when the postseason was set earlier this month.
That includes Penn State, who is a 10-point dog to USC in the Trojans’ backyard. Only Iowa is favored in its bowl matchup, as the Hawkeyes take on South Carolina in the Outback Bowl, a few hours before the Lions play on Thursday.
Already the conference has been living up to the low expectations set by many outside the league. Wisconsin was embarrassed in a loss to Florida State in Saturday’s Champs Sports Bowl, while Northwestern narrowly missed an upset, losing to Missouri in overtime of the Alamo Bowl on Monday.
Minnesota plays Kansas in today’s Insight bowl, while Michigan State joins Penn State and Iowa on New Year’s Day with a game against Georgia in the Capital One Bowl. Ohio State will close the Big Ten season against Texas on Jan. 5.
Penn State and Ohio State in particular have a chance to give the league’s image a boost, though not everyone puts stock in that theory.
“Whether you have to carry the whole conference on your back, I haven’t thought of it that way,” Paterno said. “I think its Penn State playing against Southern California. It’s a real challenge for us regardless of whether we’re a Big Ten school or not a Big Ten school. I hope we can play well and our kids can walk away from the game saying we gave it our best shot.”