If there’s one thing Joe Paterno likes to do with the media, it is doubt his own Nittany Lions.

Paul Wong
Despite Penn State coach Joe Paterno

At Big Ten Media Day in late July, Penn State coach Joe Paterno didn’t have much praise for his redshirt sophomore quarterback Zack Mills, whose performance at the end of last season almost made the Nittany Lions bowl eligible.

“I think Zack was a good redshirt freshman,” Paterno said. “I don’t know if he’s any better than that.”

And how about Larry Johnson, Paterno’s senior running back who has been waiting for a chance to be the No. 1 guy for three years?

“He’s a big back with great speed, but at times he wastes blocks and he hasn’t done a couple things consistently,” Paterno said.

Either the 74-year old coach is the toughest judge of talent and character in the country, or his nay-saying spree in Chicago was by design.

Currently, his 12th-ranked Nittany Lions are 3-0 after Saturday’s 49-17 win over Louisiana Tech. And just who are the main reasons for Penn State’s success thus far? You guessed it – Mills and Johnson.

In Penn State’s first three games, Mills has completed 64 percent of his passes for 616 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions. On top of this efficiency, he adds an athleticism that has been absent in recent Penn State quarterbacks, allowing the Nittany Lions to do a variety of things offensively, including some option plays.

“I think the big difference I see now is they have a quarterback that everyone has rallied around,” said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, whose Hawkeyes (3-1) face Mills this weekend. “The whole team believes in Zack Mills with good reason. He’s only a sophomore, but he sure doesn’t play like one.”

Johnson, who led Penn State’s quartet of inconsistent runners last season with 358 yards on the ground, has already surpassed that total with 378 yards, averaging almost seven yards per carry. In the Nittany Lions’ huge upset win over Nebraska two weekends ago, he had a breakout game, rolling through the Huskers’ famous “blackshirt” defense for 128 yards and two scores.

“He’s emerged as their top player this year,” said Ferentz of Johnson. “And based on the film, you can certainly see why.”

Penn State’s playmaking ability goes further than Mills and Johnson, which make the Hawkeyes’ trip to State College even tougher. Wide receiver Bryant Johnson and backup running back Michael Robinson, who has scored five touchdowns already, combine with the aforementioned duo to give Paterno his most talented offensive nucleus in years.

“We’re very concerned about their skill position players up and down the board,” Ferentz said. “They’re damn good. They had a bump in the road, but to me they look like the Penn State team I grew up watching.”

Don’t expect Paterno to publicly agree with Ferentz any time soon.

Bring the Mo back: Ohio State coach Jim Tressel wouldn’t come out and say that his team is different without freshman running back Maurice Clarett in the lineup. He didn’t have to.

Without Clarett, who rushed for 471 yards and seven touchdowns in his first three collegiate games, the sixth-ranked Buckeyes struggled to beat Cincinnati this past Saturday, 23-19.

“I don’t think we played as well, I don’t know if it was simply that he wasn’t there,” Tressel said. “We had more miscues than we had had in the first three games, and I’d like to think that isn’t a direct proportion on Maurice Clarett not being there. I hope we’re not that dependent.”

Tressel said he expects Clarett, who is recovering from arthroscopic surgery on his right knee, to return Saturday against Indiana.

A vote of confidence?: Minnesota is 4-0 entering its matchup at Purdue (2-2) this weekend with its wins coming against Southwest Texas State, Louisiana-Lafayette, Toledo and Buffalo.

When told that his team received six votes in this week’s USA Today/ESPN Top 25 Coaches’ Poll, Minnesota coach Glen Mason replied, “I guess I have six friends out there, or six enemies. Maybe (Purdue coach Joe) Tiller voted for me.”

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