Commentary

Roses are red, Nittany Lions are blue, Paterno still golden

Originally Published: November 22, 2008
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- As he stood with Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany in the Penn State locker room Saturday evening, the conference championship trophy before them, Penn State coach Joe Paterno responded to something his players said to him.

"Not me," Paterno said. "You guys. Not me."

Maybe so. Maybe we should point out how No. 8 Penn State embarrassed No. 15 Michigan State 49-18 in front of 109,845 bone-chilled fans at Beaver Stadium. Maybe we should point out that a senior class that signed to play here in the winters of 2004 and 2005, when Paterno had put two wheels of his program into the ditch, just won its second Big Ten championship and its 40th game in four seasons.

But in the end, this win belonged to the 81-year-old Paterno. With the 383rd victory of his career, Paterno secured his third Big Ten title and his second Rose Bowl. He also secured a legacy. Whenever he retires -- and all of us should live so long -- he will have shown that 43 years in, he still has his fastball.

"Vindication is a word that suggests animosity," Paterno said. "I don't have any of that. I really don't. But it's been great to see a bunch of kids get it done."

These kids finished 11-1 overall and 7-1 in the Big Ten, and will go to Pasadena because they beat the other 7-1 team, Ohio State, four weeks ago. After a fourth quarter filled with curtain calls for the seniors, many of the Nittany Lions left the field with roses in their hands -- or their teeth -- and several of the players who came to the locker room held them still.

"I'm going to give it to my mother," corner Lydell Sargeant said.

"I'm just going to look at it for a while," linebacker Navorro Bowman said.

[+] EnlargeJoe Paterno
AP Photo/Carolyn KasterThere's nothing wrong with roses, Joe, as long as they come with a ticket to Pasadena.
The only one who didn't want roses was Paterno. Presented with a bouquet by Corky Conzonire, the president of the Tournament of Roses Association, Paterno stood there, a grin on his face, and said, "I don't know. I don't want a picture taken of me with roses."

Though Michigan State came in with a 9-2 record (6-1 Big Ten), the Spartans looked more like the team that lost 45-7 to Ohio State than they did a team playing for a share of the conference championship.

Penn State racked up 557 yards of total offense. In three quarters, quarterback Daryll Clark completed 16 of 26 passes for 341 yards and four touchdowns, two of them on passes of 4 and 70 yards to wide receiver Deon Butler. In the fourth quarter, backup quarterback Pat Devlin added a 59-yard scoring pass to Butler, who finished with three catches for 133 yards and three touchdowns.

An offense that had lost its big-play touch -- only five in the past two games -- rang up nine plays from scrimmage of 20 yards or more against Michigan State. Clark, who struggled with his confidence late in the season, said his father told him this week, "'You look like you're playing not to make a mistake. You got to cut that out.' When I woke up this morning, I said, 'You know what? Don't worry about whether you make a mistake. Keep all positive thoughts all day.'"

Given the weather, it's hard to believe that Penn State could throw the ball so well. With flurries swirling and a stiff wind baring its fangs, Saturday did not look like a day for the Nittany Lions' Spread HD or any other offense created after World War II. This was old-school, Big Ten football weather. If the fans had worn topcoats and snap-brim hats, it might have looked like the 1930s, give or take the 80,000 additional seats at Beaver Stadium. It may be no coincidence that the Nittany Lions dusted off the antiquated I-Formation. On second-and-goal at the Michigan State 4 in the second quarter, the call went in for the ball to go to senior fullback Dan Lawlor, who had five carries this season and had gained a total of 3 yards.

Paterno knew it would work.

"Every coach in the box said, 'Aaahhh, that won't score.' He said, 'It's gonna score,'" quarterback coach Jay Paterno said. "He goes right in and scores."

Of course, Lawlor bulled 4 yards into the end zone for the Nittany Lions' second touchdown.

[+] EnlargeDaryll Clark
AP Photo/Carolyn KasterDaryll Clark has struggled in recent weeks but responded against Michigan State with career highs of 341 yards passing and four TDs.
Jay Paterno, speaking as a coach and a son, said of his head coach and father, "The older you get, the smarter he gets. The more you live, the more you think, 'Gee, that son of a gun is right.'"

Lawlor ended a 12-play, 86-yard drive, Penn State's longest (by yardage) of the season, with 12:01 left in the second quarter. Even by then, the Spread HD had proven it is not merely a fair-weather scheme. With the Spartans' safeties crashing the line to stuff the Penn State running game -- 138 yards on 35 carries -- the middle of the field became Clark's playground.

• On the first play of the second drive, Clark completed a 49-yard pass to Jordan Norwood to the Michigan State 10 that set up the first touchdown.

• Delayed middle screens to tailbacks Evan Royster and Stephfon Green gained 19 and 37 yards, respectively.

Graham Zug's 28-yard slant to the Spartans' 1 set up Penn State's third touchdown, a Clark bootleg.

• Clark's 32-yard touchdown pass to Derrick Williams, who did a great job of walling off corner Johnny Adams to make the catch, came -- naturally -- over the middle.

Williams' reception gave Penn State a 28-0 lead with 2:52 to play in the first half. The guess is that even the superstitious among the blue and white began making hotel reservations in Pasadena long before Clark's 70-yard touchdown pass to Butler late in the third quarter. That pass, with Butler streaking down the left hash marks, made it 42-7. It would be the last pass Clark throws until the Rose Bowl.

Between Saturday and the Rose Bowl, Paterno has several big events. He will undergo hip replacement surgery this week, although he refused to say which day in order to keep the media away from the hospital. He will turn 82 next month. And soon, he said, he will discuss a new contract, since his current five-year deal is about to expire.

[+] EnlargeDeon Butler
AP Photo/Carolyn KasterDeon Butler became well-acquainted with the end zone, finishing with three catches for 133 yards.
On Tuesday's Big Ten media call, Paterno gave a rare acknowledgment of his age.

"I know nobody's immortal, but I thought I was the exception," said the coach, attributing the quote to Tennessee Williams. The reference sailed past his audience of sportswriters, many of whom wracked their brains to recall if Williams coached at Tennessee or merely played there.

After the victory Saturday, Paterno elaborated on his future.

"I'm planning on coming back. I never said otherwise," Paterno said. "Everybody's making a big deal that I don't have a contract. I've never even asked. I'll sit down in the next couple of weeks with [athletic director] Tim Curley and President [Graham] Spanier … so when I talk to high school kids, I can be honest with them. Right now, I have no plans to leave. We'll see what happens."

Whatever it is, Penn State's wheels are out of the ditch and headed west. Destination: Pasadena.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN3.com. His new book, "The Maisel Report: College Football's Most Overrated & Underrated Players, Coaches, Teams, and Traditions," is on sale now. For more information, go to TheMaiselReport.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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