Strange little moment this week at Joe Paterno's news conference.
Penn State’s coach, who turns 83 in December and looks about 73, has for the most part handled questions both valid and ridiculous with a cool, easy demeanor throughout the season. He doesn’t always directly answer those questions, of course, but some of the contentiousness that had seeped into the sessions in recent years seemed to have vanished.
Apparently, though, it’s what Paterno isn’t reading (or hearing) that has him a little peeved these days.
After his Nittany Lions cut down Michigan last Saturday and again Tuesday did Paterno wonder aloud why some of his veteran stars — namely, quarterback Daryll Clark, defensive tackle Jared Odrick and linebacker Navorro Bowman — aren’t getting “the credit they deserve.”
“Whether you guys know it or not, sometimes you’ve got a little prejudice,” Paterno said to a group of reporters. “And it shows.”
Now, sitting here and trying to tell you that sportswriters are entirely without prejudice would be about as convincing as trying to tell you that the Big Ten hasn’t seen better days. But if Paterno thinks it’s the fourth estate (the local branch, anyway) that’s keeping his players from national headlines, awards, ticker-tape parades, what have you, then permit me to borrow one of the coach’s favorite expressions.
I’m not quite sure where you’re coming from, Joe.
First, it must be noted that those players are deserving of any credit they have received or will receive. Odrick, whose numbers (28 tackles, nine for losses, five sacks) seem to belong to a single-covered defensive end, not a defensive tackle who is double-teamed on nearly every snap, has been a dominant force who has disrupted plays and entire game plans. Bowman, who is rounding back into form after missing early time with a groin injury, is coming up with takeaways and turning quarterbacks and tailbacks into pulp.
Clark, the Big Ten’s most efficient passer, is throwing the ball through rain and wind better than most of the nation’s college quarterbacks are throwing it in perfect conditions.
He’s making the right reads, getting the ball out quickly and raising the confidence of his inexperienced supporting cast with every snap.
And oh by the way, he’s 18-3 as a starter.
All season long, in this space and in other publications around the state, the abilities and accomplishments of these three players and Penn State’s other key contributors (Evan Royster, Derek Moye, Dennis Landolt, Sean Lee, Jeremy Boone, A.J. Wallace, Josh Hull) have been reported and re-reported, broadcast and blogged and tweeted. (Only hours before Paterno rapped our figurative knuckles, reporters got a release that stated Clark had been named one of 15 semifinalists for the Davey O’Brien Award, which goes to the nation’s top quarterback).
And if the national media hasn’t followed suit, it’s tough to blame them. Penn State’s non-conference schedule put four wins on the board and more than $15 million in the coffers, but it also encouraged the perception that the Nittany Lions weren’t capable of beating a quality opponent.
Perception is a big thing when you’re talking about people who cover 100 teams instead of one. There are several outstanding national college football reporters, across various forms of media, who know the game and its key players and spend hours each week examining the prime-time games as well as the noon sleepers. But there are also those who merely check box scores and strength of schedule rankings, if that. They look at the numbers of a Daryll Clark and say, “Yeah, but he did it against Eastern Illinois and Akron,” and discount them.
Which isn’t entirely wrong. But those numbers don’t tell the whole story, either. If you watched the Nittany Lions early in the season and wondered if they had the stuff to handle a solid opponent, you weren’t alone. If you watched them the last few weeks, however, you would know that they would be a tough out for teams a lot better than solid (though not that many teams in the conference fit that description).
Paterno knows that it’s not the job of the people who cover his team to tout his players, and also knows he’s fortunate to have players who aren’t influenced by media attention.
“That’s not what I play for,” Clark said this week.
The coach was more than likely blowing off a little steam, which he tends to do now and then when his team is playing well and especially when it has played well after being doubted. But if Paterno wants his players to get more credit in the future, Penn State might want to put them in more games against the kind of teams that will truly showcase their talents.