Nov. 5, 2010
By Skip Myslenski
NUsports.com Special Contributor
November means elections and falling leaves, Thanksgiving and falling back (on the clock), the time serious Christmas shopping starts and the start too of Pat Fitzgerald Time. For, in the past two seasons, his teams are a splendid 6-1 in this month and, in his career, they are a very-respectable 9-4.
"I think every team in the country has the same goals as they go through the year. You want to be in a position to go into November to have (it be) a significant and special month," he says of it. "We work diligently all year long to improve. . . Gosh, I'd love to play better against Vanderbilt in the opener. But each team typically is evolving, and the longer you play with each other the better you are and the more you're on each other's page. I think we're hitting our stride at the right time. Are we a finished product yet? No. But we're definitely improving. . .and now, as we move forward, I'm not going to have to motivate them for this game."
Adds the linebacker Bryce McNaul: "There's a good precedent that's been set by the teams before us, especially last year. We had some tough wins on the road (over No. 8 Iowa on Nov. 7) and here (over No. 17 Wisconsin on Nov. 21). So, yeah. We know what it takes to be successful in November."
The 'Cats first stop this November comes Saturday at Penn State, where 83-year old Nittany Lion coach Joe Paterno will be going for his 400th career win in his 45th season as their head coach. When asked if he could imagine reaching that number Fitzgerald, who has 33 career wins in four-plus seasons, smiled and simply said: "Thirty-four would be pretty cool."
And here's what he had to say when asked if he'll still be coaching the 'Cats at 83: "I'll be in Margaritaville. No way. No way. I'll be in Naples (Fla.) somewhere. No way."
Not surprisingly, at his press conference earlier this week, Paterno was asked often about 400, a plateau not reached by any other Bowl Championship Series coach. (Current St. John's (Minn.) coach John Gagliardi has 476 career wins and former Grambling coach Eddie Robinson had 408.) He, in character, downplayed the milestone, saying "I'm only concerned about these kids getting some wins while they are in college."
But he was more revelatory when asked if he was sometimes surprised he has carried on for so long. "Oh, every once in awhile," he said here. "Sometimes you wonder whether you're doing a job. What I've done with my life is to try to develop some things with some people, to give an example as to how you can do some things and do them right and also have an impact on some other people. Football to me has been a vehicle by which I can have some impact on some people in a very impressionable part of their lives.
"I was fortunate and I had that in a high school coach, and I was fortunate and I had that in a college coach. I was fortunate I had that in my father (Angelo) who was a very unselfish man. My father started the Anti-Defamation League in New York to go to bat for African-Americans in the (military) service. That was back in 1945, and I still have a speech he gave (against) defamation.
"So that's my background. But every once in awhile, you wonder whether somebody couldn't do a better job for the people I'm responsible for. But, you know, I've not ever gotten to the point where I have felt, 'Hey, I'm going to get out of this thing.'"
Paterno approaches his possible milestone buffeted by every fans' favorite plaything: a quarterback controversy. He has had few of these in his long career and was set at this position earlier this season with the freshman Rob Bolden. But Bolden suffered a concussion at Minnesota on Oct. 23 and was held out of their game last Saturday against Michigan. Enter Matt McGloin, a former walk-on in his first start, who merely went 17-of-28 for 250 yards and a touchdown in the Nittany Lions' 41-31 victory.
Jay Paterno, their offensive coordinator, said right after that win that the job was Bolden's and he would be back for the 'Cats. But then, on Tuesday, his dad overruled him and announced: "We are going to let them have a little fun this week, let them compete, and then we'll make a decision later on in the week." And, like that, the race (to say nothing of the controversy) was on.
Bolden was a four-star recruit out of Orchard Lake, Mich., who chose Penn State over Michigan State. Bolden also was strongly considering Northwestern. McGloin, out of West Scranton, Pa., threw for 5,485 yards and 58 touchdowns in high school, but only received scholarship offers from Football Championship Subdivision schools. ("It's a great place to play college football. When the opportunity comes, I have to make the most of it. And besides, who wouldn't want to play football for Joe Paterno?" McGloin has said of his decision to be a walk-on.)
Bolden is so self-effacing that some of his veteran teammates encouraged him earlier this season to speak up in the huddle. McGloin is so confident and emotional that his teammates have taken to calling him "Brett" in reference to that guy who plays for the Vikings. ("Rob has kind of a quiet confidence. Matt has wild confidence. He takes control. He pumped us up when we needed to be pumped up," Nittany Lion guard Stefen Wisniewski said after the Michigan game.)
Bolden is the first freshman quarterback to ever start a season opener under Paterno. McGloin is the first former walk-on to start any game at quarterback under Paterno. ("Is he? Never occurred to me," said Paterno when informed of that fact. He later added, "I think McGloin is a competitor. He's kind of a live wire.")
Finally, everyone knows how to pronounce "Bolden." "McGloin," in contrast, is often butchered even by Paterno, who has solved that problem by referring to him as "Mac."
Fitzgerald, on the differences between the two: "Watching the tape, I'd say they ran a lot of similar plays. I didn't see a big change in what they were doing."
That controversy was the sexy story in Happy Valley this week, but the true workhorse of the Nittany Lions is running back Evan Royster. He has rushed for 618 yards on 117 carries (5.1 ypc) this season and, more impressively, for a school record 3,518 yards in his career. "As I watch him on tape, very rarely do I see the first guy take him down," Fitzgerald says of him. "He's a guy who runs with great power, runs behind his pads, he's got a great little spin move, he does a nice job with the stiff-arm, he's good in protection. To be the all-time leading rusher in Penn State history is a statement with an exclamation point."
Stat to watch: The 'Cats, through eight games, have been penalized 60 times for 530 yards. The Nittany Lions, through eight games, have been penalized 26 times for 191 yards.
And finally, on a lighter note, a bit of trivia that can be trotted out on any occasion: Paterno was a 145-pound double-wing fullback as a player at Brooklyn Prep, a Jesuit high school long ago closed. In 1945, his senior season, it lost only one game. That was to St. Cecelia's of Englewood (N.J.), which was coached by a guy named Vince Lombardi.
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