Lions Still Trying to Recoup Past Glory Days
By Tom Orr

Twelve wins, no losses. An outright Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl championship. Wins over conference foes by scores like 56-3, 61-21, 63-14, 45-17 and 59-31. That's what Penn State fans were expecting when their program joined the Big Ten, and ten years ago, that's exactly what they got.

The 1994 Nittany Lions were loaded with talent, and pretty much destroyed everyone they played. They should have won at least a piece of the national title, but they were unlucky enough to put together a great team the same year Nebraska was handed Tom Osborne's "Lifetime Achievement championship" on a silver platter.

No matter, some surely thought, there's another Lion juggernaut just around the corner. Ten years later, those people are still waiting for another team that even approaches that level.

There were good times, no doubt. The Lions went 35-13 in the conference between 1994 and 1999, were ranked near the top of the nation twice (1997 and 1999) and still looked like they were at worst a year away from turning back into a dominating force.

Since then Penn State is 14-18 in the league, missed bowl games in three out of four seasons and really bottomed out last year. Three wins, including just one over a conference opponent, and nine losses; the most in Penn State's more than 100-year history.

Where does Joe Paterno's program go from here?

There's only one direction they can go-up. But it's a long climb back to get back to 1994.

Team Name: Penn State Nittany Lions
Head Coach (years at school): Joe Paterno (38)
Coach's record at school: 339-109-3
Coach's record vs. OSU (vs. Tressel): 6-9 (1-2)
School's all-time record vs. OSU: 10-9 (4-7 since joining Big Ten)
Current streak vs. OSU: Lost two
Last win vs. OSU: 2001 (29-27 in State College)
2003 Record: 3-9
Records for last 5 seasons (2002 first): 3-9, 9-4, 5-6, 5-7, 10-3
Last bowl game: Lost 2002 Citrus
Last conference title: 1994

Returning starters on offense: 6

Most of last year's struggles were a direct result of the offense. The Lions went from scoring 34.3 points in 2002 to 19.4 last fall. That drop of more than two touchdowns a game was the biggest of any Division 1-A team last year, and the biggest of any Big Ten conference team in the last five years.

This year, there's a new offensive coordinator (Galen Hall) and about half of that offense is back for a chance at redemption. Hall is former PSU quarterback, the head coach of Florida in the mid-1980s, and seemingly the new heir apparent whenever Joe Paterno decides to step aside.

This season, the offense all starts with senior QB Zack Mills, a member of the Davey O'Brien award "watch list." Mills has started games during each of his first three seasons at PSU and a clear favorite for this year's Cardinal-Settles Trophy. The award is named for former Purdue basketball player Brian Cardinal and former Iowa hoops star Jess Settles, and is handed out each year to the Big Ten player in any sport who makes me say "how the hell does that guy still have eligibility left?" the most times during that season.

He was named to the all-conference honorable mention list as a sophomore, but slipped badly last year. He finished with just 1,404 yards passing, 6 TDs and 5 INTs (a year after rolling up 2,417 yards and 17 TDs). Like just about everyone else on the team, the good news is Mills pretty much has to be better than he was a year ago.

Junior Michael Robinson enters his third season as the backup QB/RB/WR in exactly the same place he opened the last two; behind Mills, but with a chance to see time. Robinson started three games at quarterback and five at tailback last fall and turned in the team's longest pass (74 yards) and run (53 yards) of the year. He continues to be enough of a weapon to make opposing defensive coordinators nervous, and even when Mills plays, Paterno's staff with find a spot for Robinson somewhere in the huddle.

True freshman QB Anthony Morelli comes in highly touted, but barring disastrous injuries to Mills and Robinson, he will likely sit out this year.

One of the few bright spots last year was the emergence of RB Austin Scott. He started four games as a freshman, and ended up leading the team in rushing with 436 yards and five touchdowns. He had some issues with pass protection and an illness, but should be ready to start fulltime this fall.

Redshirt freshman Rodney Kinlaw was recruited alongside Scott and could be another future star. Kinlaw has sub-4.3 speed, but missed all of last year with a knee injury. If he's healthy, he could contribute immediately. Sophomore Tony Hunt played in nine games last fall, rushing for 110 yards and a score.

Fifth-year senior Mike Gasparato appeared to be in line for the starting job last fall, but missed the entire season with a nagging hamstring injury. He's got a chance to provide some veteran balance to this young unit.

Senior FB Paul Jefferson is back after redshirting because of academic issues last fall. Jefferson played in all 13 games in 2002, starting the last three. He helped pave the way for Larry Johnson's 2,000-yard season, and should be a big boost to the Lions' sagging rushing attack.

The receiving corps is definitely in rebuilding mode this season, with last year's top five pass-catchers all gone (or likely gone).

Senior WR Gerald Smith is the leading returnee, with 15 catches, 198 yards and 1 TD. He started six games last year and two the year before that.

Juniors Terrance Phillips (8 catches, 136 yards, 1 TD last fall), and Kinta Palmer (two starts, 7 catches, 57 yards) are the next guys in line, at least in terms of stats. Phillips seemingly has the inside track to the starting job. Junior Gio Vendemia moved to WR this spring after spending two seasons as a DB. He's got good speed, and could develop into a decent weapon.

Fifth-year senior Ryan Scott could be a pleasant surprise this fall. Scott has not caught a ball during his career, but was a breakout star during the Lions' spring game, reeling in a team-high five passes for 101 yards. Given Paterno's past loyalty to seniors, it's not out of the question that Scott could see a lot of action, and perhaps even start.

Redshirt freshman Terrell Golden will probably see the field quite a bit as well this fall. He finished the spring game with four catches for 54 yards, including a 31-yard score.

The big question mark heading into the year is converted DB Maurice Humphrey. He finished last season with 30 catches, 410 yards and a touchdown, but was convicted of assault for hitting an ex-girlfriend and another man (breaking the guy's jaw) and kicked out of school. But as recently as last week, Paterno refused to rule out Humphrey's return to the team. If he's reinstated to PSU, don't be surprised if you see him playing again.

PSU's top three tight ends from a year ago are all gone. That leaves junior Isaac Smolko penciled in as the starter. He started one game a year ago and caught exactly one pass all season, for a three-yard touchdown against Purdue. Senior John "Death Wish" Bronson is second on the depth chart. He's a converted defensive end, who started four games there last fall.

Three of last year's starters return along the offensive front, and sophomore LT Levi Brown might be the best of the bunch. He started all 12 games as a redshirt freshman last fall, after spending his redshirt season on the defensive side of the ball. Brown could be the best NFL prospect on all of Penn State's offense.

Junior Charles Rush returns at LG after starting the final eight games there in 2003. Rush is another converted DL. Junior Tyler Reed will line up at the other guard position. He started 10 games there last fall.

Junior C E.Z. Smith is back on the team after missing all of last season because of a shoulder injury and grade problems. He started six games as a redshirt freshman in 2002, and was named a third-team freshman all-American by the Sporting News.

Junior RT Andrew Richardson will likely round out the starting five. Richardson moved to tackle from tight end, and saw action in all 12 games last fall as a backup.

Senior RG Scott Davis is back after starting four of the Lions' first six games last fall. But Davis dislocated his ankle in practice last October, and missed the rest of the season. He will provide some experienced depth on the line.

Redshirt freshman Joel Holler is among the other players challenging for time along the line. Buckeye fans might remember Holler from his days as a high school standout. Holler was at one point considering joining the Buckeyes, but ended up deciding to stay home in Pennsylvania.

Returning starters on defense: 7

The Lions have a ton of talent back on the front lines, but "Linebacker U." has some real questions at linebacker, and has to replace its top three overall tacklers from last fall.

There's plenty of experience up front, where four players with significant starting time return along the defensive line.

Junior DE Matthew Rice (8 starts last year, 32 tackles, 1 sack), junior Tamba Hali (11 starts last year, 53 tackles, 1 sack), sophomore DT Jay Alford (8 starts, 25 tackles as a freshman), and junior DE Lavon Chisley (9 starts, 41 tackles, 4 sacks in 2003) are all back.

The coaching staff shifted Hali from tackle to end this spring. They also moved senior LB Derek Wake to defensive end before spring practice, but he's now apparently going to spend the year back with the linebackers.

In addition to those guys, sophomore Ed Johnson (3 starts, 26 tackles) and junior Scott Paxson (1 start, 13 tackles) also have experience.

Paxson and Alford seem to have the inside track at DT, while Hali and Rice will have to hold off Chisley to start at end.

It now looks like Wake will be back at LB this fall, where he's started the past two seasons. Last year, he rang up 71 tackles and four sacks, and will have to serve as the leader on a very young unit this fall.

Sophomores Paul Poluszny and Tim Shaw are the other projected starters. Poluszny appeared in the final eight games and had 36 tackles and an interception in 2003, while Shaw had just three tackles in five games.

The X-factor is true freshman Dan Connor, who enrolled in time for spring practice. Connor was a three-time all-state performer in Pennsylvania and a consensus all-American as a high school senior last fall. He missed time this spring with a sprained ankle (including the Blue and White game), but is still likely to see significant time behind Wake, and will probably be starting this time next year.

Junior CB Alan Zemaitis leads the defensive backs. Zemaitis had more break-ups than J-Lo last year, deflecting 18 passes to lead the conference. He also recorded 71 tackles and 4 INTs, and enters his third year as a starter.

Junior CB Anwar Phillips is the projected starter at the other CB position. He started two games there a year ago, making 13 tackles and one sack. You probably also remember Phillips' name from an alleged incident of sexual assault in November 2002. Paterno caught a lot grief for allowing Phillips to play in the Citrus Bowl AFTER he accepted responsibility for the charges and was given a temporary expulsion from the school. Phillips served that punishment, was eventually acquitted of the charges, and spent last fall playing in 10 games. Now, he has a chance to make a real name for himself ON the field.

Senior FS Chris Harrell has 18 career starts, including seven last fall. He racked up 49 tackles in 2003. Senior Andrew Guman started the other five games last year (recording 47 tackles) and will back up Harrell.

Junior SS Calvin Lowry is going to take over the starting job this year after seeing spot duty in each of the last two years. He started two games as a freshman and one more last fall. He played in all 12 games in 2003, recording 20 tackles.

Returning kickers: 2

David Kimball, the bionic-legged kicker who missed a 60-yard game-winner against Ohio State by just a few feet, is now gone.

That leaves the fulltime placekicking duties to senior Robbie Gould, who is back for his fourth year of action. Gould had some problems with consistency last fall, hitting just 9-of-16 FGs, and eventually losing time to Kimball. However, he was perfect from inside 40 last fall (7-for-7) and hit 17-of-22 during his sophomore season, with a long of 51. If he's got his head on straight, he'll be fine.

Sophomore Jeremy Kapinos is also back after a solid freshman year. Kapinos averaged 41.9 yards per kick, fourth-best in the conference, and should be a solid weapon for several more seasons.

Sept. 4: vs. Akron (3:30 pm)
Sept. 11: at Boston College (8:00 pm, ABC)
Sept. 18: vs. Central Florida (12:10 pm, ESPN-Plus)
Sept. 25: at Wisconsin (5:45 pm, ESPN or ESPN2)
Oct. 2: at Minnesota (TBA)
Oct. 9: vs. Purdue (4:30 pm)
Oct. 23: vs. Iowa (TBA)
Oct. 30: at Ohio State (TBA)
Nov. 6: vs. Northwestern (TBA)
Nov. 13: at Indiana (TBA)
Nov. 20: vs. Michigan State (TBA)

This is a superb schedule for the Lions. PSU misses Michigan, and every home game looks winnable. Even if they dump a home date, they could lose every road game except the cupcake at Indiana and still finish with a winning record. The game against Boston College is very winnable as well (the Eagles have only 11 starters back). No Big Ten team gets an off week before playing the Lions. The only downside is missing Illinois.

Biggest game: vs. Iowa. There's no reason why the Lions shouldn't hold serve at home this year, although this game looks like it might be the biggest challenge. PSU has an extra week to get ready for the Hawkeyes, who will be coming in either: A) Flying high off a win over Ohio State and primed for a let-down, or B) Crushed off another tough loss to the Buckeyes and mentally not into this game. Iowa's going to be a good team, but they lost a ton of talent off their roster and this will be their first road game in almost a month.

Upset alert: vs. Northwestern. The Wildcats have a ton of returning starters this year, and just like I mentioned with Iowa above, the Lions will be coming in off a tough loss or emotional win against rival OSU. I'm certainly not saying PSU will lose this one, but it's not a gimme. Also, I'm not sure how the Lions will handle their season finale against the Spartans if they have a bowl game hanging in the balance. This team could easily enter that one with a 5-5 record, needing a win to play in the postseason. That series has been screwy recently (a 41-10 PSU loss last year, a 61-7 win the year before that, a 42-23 win the year before that), although the Lions are still unbeaten at home against MSU since they joined the conference.

Incredible stats (a.k.a "How the mighty have fallen"): PSU is 16-4 in road openers over the last 20 years, but just 1-3 over the last four seasons.

Since PSU joined the Big Ten, OSU has outscored the Lions by an average margin of 30-7 in Ohio Stadium, and won all five meetings.

When PSU joined the league, it took more than three seasons (26 conference games) before they lost their sixth conference game, a 38-7 defeat in Columbus in 1996. Last year, it took less than two months and exactly six games for the Lions to lose six conference games.

You can't usually pinpoint an exact moment when a program starts to decline, but for PSU the answer is simple. In 1999, the Lions were 9-0, ranked no. 2 in both polls, and a clear national title contender. But during their homecoming game, Minnesota (just 5-3 so far on the season) used a tipped pass on 4th-and-16 to set up a game-winning field goal and beat PSU, 24-23. The Lions lost their next two games to miss out on even a piece of the conference title, and outside of a solid 2002, the program really hasn't completely recovered.

From 1966 until the start of that Minnesota game in 1999, Joe Paterno's record stood at 316-80-3 (winning 79.6% of his games). Since then, it's 23-29 (44.2%).

Since PSU joined the conference in 1993, their one league championship ranks them behind Ohio State (at least a piece of four titles), Michigan (four), Wisconsin (three), Northwestern (three), and tied with Purdue and Iowa (one each). All six of those teams have won a title more recently than the Lions.

The bottom line: Penn State is down, but certainly not out. The Lions are rebuilding the program and finally starting to bring back some of the talented skill position guys they've missed during their recent decline.

There are always questions about how long Paterno will stick around as the head guy, but so far he hasn't given any indication that he's ready to step aside. Barring something unforeseen, I would bet that he's planning on trying to get the Lions back to a double-digit win season, then handing the reigns to Galen Hall and going out on top.

That double-digit win season probably won't come this fall, but with a favorable schedule the Lions are likely going to at least be bowl-bound. Assuming they can weather a brutal start to the conference schedule (at Wisconsin, at Minnesota, home for Purdue, home for Iowa, at Ohio State), with at least a couple wins, PSU could finish as high as 8-3.

Realistically, expect about a .500 conference record and a six or seven-win year. It's not 1994, but as long as this season doesn't turn into another 2003, the Lions and their fans will probably take it.

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