ORLANDO, Fla. – One always imagined there was a secret to all of this for Joe Paterno. Just 10 days removed from his 83rd birthday, he sat at his press conference Thursday looking healthy, tan and relaxed.
Bobby Bowden is being forced out at Florida State and will coach his final game today in the Gator Bowl. Florida’s Urban Meyer, just 45 years old, will take an indefinite leave of absence following today’s Sugar Bowl.
Paterno will be on the sideline today, as well, leading Penn State against LSU in the Capital One Bowl. But he has no intention of stopping any time soon.
As for the secret to that, well, Paterno thought it was about time to reveal it.
“Well – a lotta garlic,” Paterno said drolly. “And a lotta olive oil.”
After the laughter subsided, he continued.
“When I’d get listless, my mom would throw me in the tub with a little hot water, rub olive oil on my head and shove garlic down my throat,” Paterno said. “She’d ask if I was OK. Well, if you didn’t say you were OK, you’d get more garlic. So you were better off saying, ‘Yeah, I’m fine! I feel great!’”
And there you have it.
Maybe homemade remedies don’t quite explain Paterno’s at-ease outlook headed into today’s matchup with No. 12 LSU (9-3). But if Paterno’s Nittany Lions were going to beat such a talented program – a team just two years removed from a national championship – this would be the time.
The Tigers have dealt with some unsettling turnover since November. Two assistant coaches are gone, including prominent running backs coach Larry Porter. The three running backs at the top of the depth chart back in the preseason are all injured and won’t play today. The quarterback, sophomore Jordan Jefferson, doesn’t yet have the experience to overwhelm a questionable secondary, as USC was able to do with Mark Sanchez in last season’s Rose Bowl.
Even the grass under the players’ feet today seems to favor Penn State. The surface at Citrus Bowl Stadium was a disastrous and dangerous mess during Tuesday’s Champs Sports Bowl. Add in an expected rainy morning today, and LSU’s speed advantage could be whittled down.
“This is the easy part,” Paterno said of finally getting to play the game after sitting out since beating Michigan State on Nov. 21. “My job’s not tough. That’s an easy job, coming down to a bowl. What’s tough is going home after you’ve played in a bowl game and I’ve gotta start to get the young guys to pay the price to get back to a bowl game. That’s the hard part.”
Paterno has said he thought his team may have been wound too tightly before getting blown out by USC out in Pasadena a year ago. The coach himself had been frustrated with the logistics of that game, including a long bus ride to the team’s designated practice field and his general distaste for the scheduling demands of a BCS bowl.
Some of that may have rubbed off on his team. So Paterno is perhaps taking the opposite approach with his No. 13 Lions (10-2) this year in hopes that it makes a difference.
On the other sideline, Les Miles has certainly made bowl games look easy since taking over as LSU’s coach in 2005. Under Miles, the Tigers are 4-0 in the postseason, scoring at least 34 points in each of those contests and winning by an average of four scores.
“I don’t know that ‘easy’ is necessarily the right word,” said Miles, who has some familiarity with Penn State, having been an assistant at Michigan when the Lions joined the Big Ten. “It seems like there’s a balance that needs to be struck with any bowl schedule that allows you to prep for the game and still have the enjoyment of the city, the sights and take part in bowl events.
“But I can tell you that preparing for any football game is not easy. I don’t know that easy is exactly it.”
On offense, the Tigers will have to put more of the load on Jefferson because of the multiple injuries to the running backs. Jefferson has some tall targets to help him out, led by the very talented Brandon LaFell.
Even if LSU struggles on offense, however, Penn State was beaten twice this season because of turnovers, as well as big plays on defense and special teams by Iowa and Ohio State.
Penn State players and coaches alike this week have said there has been an increased focus on kick and punt coverage during recent practices, as LSU features one of the best return men in the country in track star Trindon Holliday.
“Bowl preps are totally different each year,” defensive coordinator Tom Bradley said. “The (other team) has had a lot of time to look at themselves, too. You have to be ready for everything they might do. When you play in these bowl games, you gotta survive the first quarter and get caught up to the game speed as fast as you can.”