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November 26, 2008

Penn State now forced to play waiting game

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. Penn State coach Joe Paterno would rather not have a six-week layoff before the Rose Bowl, even though history suggests the long sabbatical won't bother his team one bit.

The Big Ten ends its season a week earlier than every other "Big Six" conference, which has led to speculation that it hinders the conference's bowl performance. The Big Ten is moving next season to a longer schedule that will allow its teams to end the regular season on Thanksgiving weekend.

"Everybody we play in a bowl game has played football during the period when we are not doing anything," Paterno said. "There won't be a Big Ten team playing a football game in the next month, or at least until they go to a bowl game. I really think that that hurts us a little bit. Some of the [non-Big Ten] teams that will be in bowl games have two more games to play.

"I don't like it, but that's the cards you get and that's what you have to deal with."

Penn State traditionally deals with it just fine.

The Nittany Lions have won their bowl in each of the past three seasons; the rest of the Big Ten owns a 5-14 bowl record during the same time frame. Penn State's 26-23 triple-overtime triumph over Florida State in the Orange Bowl three years ago represents the Big Ten's last BCS victory.

How has Penn State managed to maintain its intensity during the long holiday layoff? Quarterback Daryll Clark gives a simple two-word answer to this complex question: "Joe Paterno."

Paterno has coached in and won more bowls than anyone in history. His career bowl record of 23-10-1 gives him a .691 winning percentage, which ranks second to former Georgia Tech coach Bobby Dodd all-time among coaches who participated in at least a dozen bowls.

If Penn State wins its BCS game this season, Paterno will pass Dodd on the list. Penn State almost certainly will play in the Rose Bowl, though the Nittany Lions also maintain extremely faint hopes of reaching the BCS Championship Game.

Paterno's comments to the team after Penn State's Big Ten-clinching 49-18 victory over Michigan State last week revealed how he's always looking forward, no matter how far away the next game may be.

"He's our guy," Clark said after the Michigan State game. "He tells us, 'We did something very great tonight, but guess what? We've got one more game. Let's get back out there and practice hard.' ''

Penn State's likely bowl practice schedule doesn't really stray from the norm. Penn State has no classes or workouts this week, but the Nittany Lions probably will practice a couple of days in each of the next two weeks before final exams begin Dec. 15. The team will arrive at its bowl destination around Dec. 20 and will practice the week leading up to the bowl as if it were getting ready for a regular-season game.

Even though most other bowl-bound teams have similar itineraries, they often don't look as prepared as Penn State. The Penn State players attribute their postseason preparation to the coaching staff.

"Our coaches are magnificent," Penn State defensive end Josh Gaines said. "Our coaches do a good job of getting us ready. When we go out to bowl sites, it's fun. But at the same time, it's business. The coaches do a good job of keeping us focused and keeping us ready."

And no matter how much Paterno might not like the long layoff, his team refuses to use it as a convenient excuse for a poor performance. Linebacker Tyrell Sales believes the Nittany Lions actually could benefit from the extra time off.

Bowling them over
Penn State coach Joe Paterno has more bowl appearances and bowl victories than any coach in college football history. This list shows he also has the second-best bowl winning percentage of any coach who has participated in at least 12 bowls.
Bobby Dodd Georgia Tech 9-4 .692
Joe Paterno Penn State 23-10-1 .691
Don James Washington 10-5 .667
Bobby Bowden West Virginia/FSU 20-10-1 .661
Terry Donahue UCLA 8-4-1 .654

"It could be a disadvantage, but it could be an advantage," Sales said. "[It's] any way you want to look at it. We're going to be healthy. We're going to be fresh. And we're going to be ready to go."

Assuming Penn State ends up in the Rose Bowl, the Nittany Lions could need all of Paterno's postseason guile to keep their bowl streak going. Penn State would face either USC or Oregon State in the Rose Bowl, depending on the result of Oregon's game at Oregon State this weekend.

If Oregon beats Oregon State, Penn State would enter the Rose Bowl as an underdog to USC, which has beaten its Big Ten opponent by an average margin of 23 points in the past two Rose Bowls. If Oregon State defeats Oregon, it would set up a rematch of Penn State's 45-14 victory over the Beavers in the second week of the regular season.

Last year's postseason results suggest bowl rematches favor the loser of the regular-season game. BYU beat UCLA 17-16 in the Las Vegas Bowl after losing to the Bruins 27-17 in the regular season. Purdue trounced Central Michigan 45-20 in the regular season and squeaked past the Chippewas 51-48 in the Motor City Bowl.

Then again, Paterno's history indicates that Penn State has a good chance to continue its history of postseason success. His teams traditionally play their best when the stakes are highest, so the pressure surrounding a BCS game shouldn't bother them.

Penn State is a combined 14-4 in the Rose, Orange, Cotton, Sugar and Fiesta bowls during the Paterno era. The Nittany Lions won their first national title in 1982 by winning the Sugar Bowl over Georgia in Herschel Walker's final game. Four years later, Penn State clinched its second championship with a Fiesta Bowl victory over Miami that remains one of the most memorable upsets in bowl history.

The Nittany Lions don't expect an inconveniently long layoff to interrupt their plans to add to Paterno's legacy as the most successful postseason coach in college football history.

"Everyone's excited to play,'' Clark said. "Everyone's excited to go to Pasadena and play some football. Rust? I don't think so. It's just a matter of making sure you keep your intensity up.

"If it gets down, he'll bring it back up for us."

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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