This is a big week up in University Park, Pa. It is the week President Bush calls on his buddy, Joe Paterno, to help out on the campaign trail. It is the week the Maryland Terps show up for the annual Penn State game in their no-huddle, run-and-shoot, offensive stampede.
Paterno was beating the drums for both visitors yesterday in his weekly news conference, handily mixing politics with football. Today at noon, the Penn State coach will introduce Bush in a rally on campus.
"He's somebody I've gotten to know and like very much," Paterno said. "He's been very interested in my family. He's written my boy, Jay, who's a grad student at Virginia. He's dropped me notes, called me different times.
"He's a person I enjoy being around and I admire very much. . . . It's an honor for me [to introduce Bush]. I'm pleased he asked me."
Maryland's visit figures to be a close encounter of another kind. The Terps may be 0-3, but they represent the toughest test yet for the 3-0 Nittany Lions, who hammered Temple (49-8) and Eastern Michigan (52-7) after taking a 24-20 squeaker from Cincinnati.
"I think this week will be the first real indication as to what kind of football team we have," Paterno said. "Maryland is a good football team; they've just had bad luck. They could be 3-0 just as well as 0-3. And that's not just coaching talk."
Paterno didn't exactly avoid "coaching talk," though. In a half-hour discourse, he compared Maryland's offense to No. 1 Miami's and likened its defense to No. 2 University of Washington's. What's more, he said the Terps run their newfangled offense at such a pace that he is "very concerned [whether] we have enough depth to hang in there."
Rhetoric aside, Paterno can't be certain how good his Lions really are. They have been playing without their first-string quarterback all season, and they haven't faced a top-notch offensive team. That's where the Terps, with the no-huddle scheme, figure to pose problems.
Maryland quarterback John Kaleo is averaging 262 yards passing, having thrown for four touchdowns in three losses.
"Their offense is very similar to Miami's," Paterno said of the Terps' attack. "It's a one-back set. I'm not sure I'd call it run-and-shoot in the sense there's not a lot of sprint-outs, not as much motion as you would expect.
"I think the difference is they go without a huddle. They put a lot of pressure on the defensive signal calling, because you don't have a lot of time to decide what you want to do, and you don't have a lot of time to make adjustments. They run a lot of plays and wear you down."
Paterno will have his scout team attempt to produce a Maryland-like pace for his defense this week, no easy task. But he says he won't be able to gauge Penn State's defensive progress "until we get into a really tough football game where we play somebody with comparable speed."
Having heard a lot about their soft early-season schedule, the Lions are eager to face a quality Division I-A team.
"You could say we've had two easy games, but we've worked hard every week," said cornerback Shelly Hammonds. "Our first team, the Blue team, has shut two teams out."
Playing against the run-and-shoot, Hammonds said, "is going to be exciting. Maryland is an improved team. It will be a challenge, a good contest, and we've got to be ready. They'll throw a lot of things at us."
Paterno wouldn't name a starting quarterback, although it's expected that redshirt junior John Sacca will start for the second straight week. Sacca threw for 153 yards and his first two Penn State touchdowns last week. Kerry Collins, who won the quarterback job in spring practice, broke his right index finger playing volleyball and is still out.
The Lions have averaged 273 rushing yards and produced 37 of their 57 first downs on the ground. But Paterno sees problems going against the Terps' defense, too.
"Just as their offense is innovative, so is the defense," he said. "They play defense like the University of Washington. They keep coming after you. It's very difficult to get a consistent running game against them. They like to play eight guys around the ball. They've made everybody else play at their pace."
In case it's not clear, Paterno expects a tough time Saturday, regardless of Penn State's 33-1-1 advantage in the series.
"I think we've got a great series with Maryland, a very competitive series," he said. "Look at the wins and losses and it may not appear that way. But there have been so many tough, close games, and we've been fortunate against them. This will be another tough one this week."