Special teams woes plague No. 19 Penn St.
Waxing on about linebacker Sean Lee, quarterback Daryll Clark and his other veterans will have to wait until after the No. 19 Nittany Lions play Indiana on Saturday. There's a long to-do list for practice - starting with shoring up special teams.
Paterno said he may spend a little more time focusing on special teams this week, and may make some lineup changes after the unit's lackluster showing in last week's loss to Ohio State.
"Right now I don't have time for that," Paterno said Tuesday when asked to talk about his seniors. "We've got to get our football team ready to play a little better than we've played all year because it's going to take a little better performance to beat Indiana."
It probably can't get any worse than the dud that Penn State (8-2, 4-2 Big Ten) had against the Buckeyes.
The offensive line got overwhelmed, giving little time for tailback Evan Royster or quarterback Daryll Clark to make big plays. The Nittany Lions' vaunted defense allowed season highs of 24 points and 228 rushing yards.
Perhaps most deflating were the miscues on special teams, a season-long concern.
Two long punt returns by Ohio State's Ray Small set up two touchdowns - and Small would have taken one of those returns back for a score if not for the desperate tackle of punter Jeremy Boone.
"Today we'll go out there and challenge a couple guys a little bit so that we can find out whether we really have the right people in there," Paterno said.
Penn State solved one punting problem last week, only to have another emerge. The Nittany Lions came into the game having had two punts blocked this season, including one returned for a touchdown during a September loss to Iowa. Paterno had said the blocks may have been in part due to Boone - who typically punts well - taking an extra half-step or two before punting.
Linebacker Josh Hull, who helps protect Boone during punts, said the punter may have done too good a job Saturday and "out-kicked the coverage." The Buckeyes pounded the Nittany Lions up front and made it difficult to get downfield after the punt was away, Hull said.
But he offered no excuses.
"The one play, I think there was five missed tackles. That's not what Penn State is about, that's not what the punt team is about," Hull said.
Exacerbating the problem is that the Nittany Lions average only five-plus yards per punt return, the second-lowest mark in the Big Ten. Put in perspective, Small's 130 return yards on seven punts last week was more than Penn State's combined punt return yardage (98) for all 10 games this year.
Statistically, Penn State is even less productive in the kickoff return game with a Big Ten-worst 18.2 yards per return. It's only on kickoff coverage where Penn State has been respectable, ranking third in the conference
Paterno splits up special teams coaching duties among his staff rather than assign a special teams coordinator - a setup he's had for as long as he can remember.
"We haven't been bad on special teams through the years. Let's don't get carried away, guys. I'm not about to change," Paterno said.
Any change he does make may come in personnel.
"We've just got to do a little better job, get some better people in there. That's my problem, all right," Paterno said. "It's not the scheme, it's not the coaching, it's a question of whether I'm giving them enough time or I've emphasized it enough."
Penn State can still make a respectable New Year's Day bowl game if it wins out - with an outside shot at getting back into the Bowl Championship Series picture. Currently No. 18 in the BCS standings, Penn State must move up four spots to be considered for an at-large berth.
If that were to happen, the Nittany Lions might still look like an attractive option in spite of the losses to Ohio State and Iowa because their fans are known to travel.
Paterno will leave the postseason speculation to the fans and media. He's concentrating on getting two more regular season victories.
"Right now, we're only 8-2," Paterno said. "I think maybe if we end up 10-2, that's a pretty darn good year ... if we end up 10-2."