In the post-game press conference on Saturday, JoePa sat, smallish and wrinkly, like a character out of Tolkien, and mumbled inaudibly for two and a half minutes. His face and his posture betrayed his sense of defeat; JoePa, typically full of piss and vigor, was lifeless. Critics have bellowed for years that the jig is up for the venerable 75-year-old. Penn State though, despite its 1-2 Big Ten record, very much deserves to be considered among the top handful of teams in the conference. But to see Paterno – who in my mind always paced the Penn State sideline with poise and dignity – fall apart emotionally the way he did on Saturday was a telling sign that perhaps old JoePa ain’t got it no more. Say what you will about Penn State’s record from year to year; nothing is more ominous than a crumbling rock.
I lived for a time in central Pennsylvania, where “Paterno” is spoken with a reverence otherwise reserved for Jesus Christ. That’s not hyperbole. I arrived in central Pennsylvania at age 14 – a believer in neither Joe nor Jesus. I left the area a Jewish believer in Joe. But after Saturday I am tempted to join the critics. Veteran Penn State beat writers say they haven’t seen Joe behave the way he did after the game on Saturday in 20 years. Paterno refused to talk to reporters, and prohibited his players and assistant coaches from doing so either. State College’s Centre Daily Times’ columnist Walt Moody called out Paterno for his behavior, accusing the coach of hypocrisy, and of setting a bad example for his players.
A loss like the one they suffered on Saturday – Penn State’s second overtime loss in three weeks – is the kind of thing that could induce the wheels to come off the Nittany Lion wagon. It takes them out of contention for a major bowl bid, and makes winning the Big Ten an extremely difficult charge. That Paterno appears to be tired and worn only makes the situation worse. On the other hand, Penn State has played the most difficult part of its schedule – three straight against Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan, with the last two on the road – and could win out after going 1-1 in its next two games, against Northwestern and Ohio State.
As for our Wolverines, Saturday feels like the kind of win that can propel a team to a place otherwise beyond its capabilities. Firstly, the frightening injury to cornerback Zia Combs could have been a major setback. Having to watch your teammate carted off the field, limp as a rag doll, is obviously a sobering experience, but the Wolverines responded admirably, playing positively inspired football. That Combs appears to be healthy is a blessing, and can only serve Michigan well. Winning a dramatic game like that – overtime, under the lights – can remind a team of how good it can be. When you escape from a tough game with a “W,” you gain an appreciation for how valuable each victory is.
Beyond that, quarterback John Navarre is playing well. He was Elway-esque in engineering Michigan’s fourth quarter drive to tie the game at 21, and his pocket presence and decision making has never been better. A team can do a lot when it believes (rightfully) in its quarterback.
So should Michigan fans book flights to Tempe? Of course not. Michigan has a knack for going 6-2 in the Big Ten, and there really isn’t any reason to think this team will perform differently. Is Navarre-Chris Perry-Braylon Edwards-Tony Pape (and the rest of the offensive line) better than Drew Henson-Anthony Thomas-David Terrell-Steve Hutchinson (and the rest of the 2000 offensive line)? God no. Is the 2002 defense better than defenses of recent years? It’s supposed to be, but the numbers don’t support that theory. Michigan has a knack for winning the games that maybe it should have lost, and losing the ones that it definitely should have won. The 2002 Wolverines have already won a few of the former (Washington, Penn State), and have at least three of the latter (Purdue, Minnesota, Michigan State) coming up.
But games like Saturday’s are the type that make or break seasons, and Michigan is in a position now where it knows it can win close games, and it can win big games. It has confidence, and besides Iowa and Ohio State, plays a lot of unranked teams that look completely beatable.
At the midway point of the season, Michigan needs to retain the emotion of Saturday for as long as it can. Conversely, Joe Paterno needs to release that emotion as soon as possible. And Joe? Don’t let the game kill you. You’ve been coaching for over half a century, and if after all that time the tough losses are a cause for pouting, perhaps the jig really is up.
David Horn can be reached at email@example.com.