Illini-PSU may bring another milestone for Paterno
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP)
No matter how much longer Joe Paterno plans to coach, the 100,000-plus fans who pack Beaver Stadium on Saturday could witness one of the final milestones of his Hall of Fame career.
A victory over Illinois would give Paterno 409 with No. 21 Penn State, breaking a tie with Grambling State's Eddie Robinson for most wins among Division I coaches. Only John Gagliardi, still active at Division III St. John's, Minn., has more with 481.
''All I wanted to do was ... hopefully have a little luck and have a little fun doing it. I've been lucky enough to be around some great athletes,'' Paterno, 84, said, Thursday night in a taped question-and-answer segment for the team's weekly radio show.
''The fact that we've won a lot of games is that the good Lord kept me healthy, not because I'm better than anybody else. It's because I've been around a lot longer than anybody else.''
True enough - 46 seasons as Nittany Lions head coach, in fact. The resume includes two national titles, a record 24 bowl wins and 547 contests (and counting).
Next up is the struggling Illini (6-2, 2-2 Big Ten) in chilly Happy Valley. The National Weather Service forecast called for 3 to 7 inches of snow possible Saturday with a high in the mid-to-upper 30s.
Other than his brief comment on the radio, Paterno in typical fashion has brushed aside talk about his accomplishments the last few weeks. A 34-24 victory at Northwestern notched Paterno the win that tied him with Robinson at 408.
That also gave Penn State (7-1, 4-0) six straight wins since losing to No. 2 Alabama 27-11 in Week 2. They've had a string of close or unexpectedly underwhelming victories. And tough games still loom against Nebraska, Ohio State and Wisconsin.
Still, Illinois would love to exchange positions with Penn State, which has a one-game lead in the Leaders Division over one-loss Wisconsin. Following a 6-0 start, coach Ron Zook's club has lost two straight
After averaging 34.7 points in the perfect start, the Illini had 21 total the past two weeks and failed to score a point in either of those two losses before the fourth quarter. The heat is mounting again on Zook heading into Penn State.
''Good football team, but you know what? We're a good football team, too. You know, we're 6-2,'' Zook said. ''Do we have to play better? Yeah, absolutely, you know, we've got to play better than we have the last two games. But ... I think that's the challenge that our guys are taking.''
Zook has said he hopes to run the ball more with halfback Jason Ford, who has struggled at times holding on to the football. Big-play receiver A.J. Jenkins, who leads the nation with 987 yards, has been relatively quiet of late, held scoreless and to no more than 92 yards each of the last two games.
And now, Illinois gets to face one of the top defenses in the country on the road with wintry weather possible - though many of the Illini may not be that intimidated. Illinois' 33-13 victory last season spoiled homecoming weekend in Happy Valley.
''We're used to having kind of an empty bandwagon to pull,'' quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said. ''I remember when we won last year at Penn State, our record wasn't nearly as good as it is now and people were all kinds of surprised.''
As a freshman, Scheelhaase helped orchestrate the win by throwing for 151 yards and an 18-yard touchdown to Jenkins. He also ran for 61 yards on eight carries. With the offense struggling now, Illinois may lean on their quarterback more to create big plays.
The big difference this season is the stout play of Penn State's defense, led by disruptive tackle Devon Still. The athletic defensive line is coming off its best performance of the season with 5 1/2 of the team's seven sacks vs. Northwestern.
Oh, and they haven't forgotten about losing to Illinois, either.
''Having someone come into our house and beating us like that, it's one of those things where you don't want someone to ever do that again,'' said Jordan Hill, who partners with Still to form one of the country's best defensive tackle tandems.
Just in case there isn't enough on the line, the Nittany Lions can also draw motivation from being on the team that secured another milestone for their leader. Given the forecast, Paterno will likely coach from the press box again since he's still sore after suffering right shoulder and pelvis injuries following an accidental hit Aug. 7 in preseason practice.
''He hasn't changed much to me, still vocal when he needs to ... still coaching guys even though he got hit,'' tailback Silas Redd, the Big Ten's leading rusher with 869 yards, said. ''The man is 84 years-old, but to me, the man is getting around pretty good.''
AP writer David Mercer in Champaign, Ill., contributed to this report.
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