UNIVERSITY PARK — Half of Joe Paterno’s 44th season coaching Penn State is in the books, and yet it’s still difficult to draw many conclusions about his 14th-ranked Nittany Lions, who have five convincing wins over opponents who offered little resistance and a sound loss to an undefeated but less-than-dominant Iowa team.
Fans, pollsters and even Paterno himself want to see Penn State defeat a team of substance.
Saturday’s opponent, Minnesota (4-2, 2-1 Big Ten) may or may not fit that bill, but will the Nittany Lions be ready if they do?
Paterno got his first hint of an answer during an encouraging Monday practice.
“It’s only Tuesday and I may change my impression after a couple more days, but I got the impression kids understand what we’re talking about, what it takes to be a really good football team,” Paterno said. “We have not been a really good football team. We have the prospects of being a really good football team, but we have not gotten there yet.”
After the Nittany Lions lost 21-10 at home to the Hawkeyes, Paterno questioned the attitude and commitment of some of his players, particularly his younger players, during his weekly radio show. He didn’t see the same approach on Monday, and thinks Saturday’s 52-3 win over Football Championship Subdivision school Eastern Illinois had something to do with it.
“I thought last Saturday was a good situation for us, not necessarily for the kids who have some confidence in themselves, but the fact that we got some younger kids in the game,” Paterno said. “The morale of the whole team is a little bit better now because some of the kids that didn’t get in were just going through the hard part of football, which is the practice part of it. I think there was a little different attitude yesterday.”
Just because the Nittany Lions haven’t beaten anyone better than strugging Illinois doesn’t mean they can’t or won’t, say the team’s veteran players.
“We know we’re a type of team that can beat a lot of teams,” linebacker and co-captain Sean Lee said. “What the Iowa game showed was that we can get beat if we make mistakes.
“We’re really trying to be perfect in practice and in the games, trying to cut out mistakes and not beat ourselves.”
Out of the frying pan, into the doghouse
Reserve defensive tackle Brandon Ware, who broke a bone in his foot six weeks ago, is starting to resume some drills during practice.
But the injury might be the least of the obstacles that are keeping the redshirt freshman from the field.
“Don’t look forward to Brandon Ware doing anything this year,” Paterno said. “He’s way overweight. He’s cutting classes. Brandon Ware right now is in my doghouse and I have no plans to use Brandon Ware.”
Long-term move for Hodges
The late snaps true freshman Gerald Hodges saw at outside linebacker against Eastern Illinois came as a surprise to many fans and media who expected to see Hodges at safety, the position he played until a couple of weeks ago.
They should get used to it, said Hodges’ coach.
“He’s a big kid who likes to hit people, and he can play in space,” Paterno said. “Nowadays with all of the spreads that you’re looking at, you got to have a linebacker who can handle some of the offensive sets at that position, which basically takes a kid who is a pretty good athlete, who is close to being a strong safety. Hodges fits that bill. I think that’s where his future will be. I think he’ll be a very fine outside linebacker.”
Nerraw McCormack is still doubtful with an ankle injury, Paterno said, so Ako Poti is projected to make his second straight start at right tackle. Sophomore DeOn’tae Pannell, who has fought an ankle injury of his own, has looked healthier in practice, according to Paterno.
Penn State cornerback Knowledge Timmons, who suffered a minor injury to his right knee Saturday, is likely to be in the lineup against Minnesota.
“Knowledge practiced (Monday),” Paterno said. “I’m anxious to see how he feels (Tuesday). I think he’s going to be fine.”
Big Ten bowl lineup shifts
The Big Ten announced Tuesday contract extensions with the Capital One, Outback and Insight bowls and four-year agreements with the Gator and Texas bowls and Dallas Football Classic. Beginning next season, the conference will have tie-ins with eight bowl games.
Paterno said backup kicker/ punter Ryan Breen, who got his first try at a kickoff against Eastern Illinois (recording a line-drive touchback), has shown promise but been “inconsistent” during practice. The Nittany Lions will likely redshirt true freshman kicker Anthony Fera, the coach added. ... Paterno isn’t conceding the punt return duties to freshman wide receiver Justin Brown despite the rookie’s impressive 20- yard return Saturday but said Brown will continue to get looks there in practice.