Changing with the times, Paterno puts pizazz into Penn State offense STRIKE UP THE BLAND

October 13, 1994|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Sun Staff Writer

They have scored more than 60 points in one game, more than 50 in two others and are threatening to break the school's single-season records for total points, yards gained and touchdowns. They have the country's top-rated Division I-A quarterback and NFL-caliber players at every other skill position.

If not for the infamously bland white uniforms they were wearing or the instantly recognizable 67-year-old guy with the sunglasses and jet-black hair pacing the sideline, you'd probably not believe it was Penn State.

In fact, you'd think your vision was as poor as Joe Paterno's.

"One of the reasons Joe has been successful as a coach is that he's been able to look at his team and say, 'What will it take for this team to be good?' " Kerry Collins, the team's quarterback, said yesterday. "He really doesn't have a choice. He'd be shortchanging himself and the team if he didn't open it up this year."

And Penn State wouldn't be considered one of a handful of teams left with a legitimate chance to win the national championship. But to do that, the third-ranked Nittany Lions have to get past two significant obstacles that have been in their way in recent years: being 5-0 and playing Michigan.

In each of the past two seasons, Penn State has won its first five games. In 1992, the Nittany Lions' last year as an independent, a 17-14 loss at Miami started a slide that saw them lose five of their last seven games, including an embarrassing 24-3 defeat to Stanford in the Blockbuster Bowl.

Then came last season, Penn State's first year in the Big Ten. Unbeaten and playing host to Michigan after a week off, the Nittany Lions, trailing 14-10 early in the second half, had a chance to tie in the third quarter, but couldn't score in four tries from the 1-yard line. The Wolverines went on to win, 21-13.

"I think we're a better football team than we were the last two years," said Paterno, whose Nittany Lions will make their first trip to Ann Arbor on Saturday to play fifth-ranked Michigan (4-1). "Last year we were struggling with our quarterback situation. I don't think there's a comparison now. The year prior to that we had some leadership problems on the team."

Paterno, accused for many years of being dictatorial and out of touch, has made a noticeable attempt to get closer to players young enough to be his grandchildren. He hired Kenny Jackson, a popular player from the school's 1982 championship team, as the team's receivers coach. And he did something few expected: he brought the offense of the 1950s into the '90s.

Offensive coordinator Fran Gantner, an assistant under Paterno since 1971, said that last season's move into the Big Ten helped the legendary coach become more flexible and open-minded. "You don't see the 10-7 and 14-10 football games of five years ago," said Gantner. "The chances of your dominating another football team defensively are not what they used to be."

Then again, the level of offensive talent that has come together in Happy Valley is perhaps better than it has ever been: better than it was in 1971, when a team led by Lydell Mitchell and Franco Harris averaged a shade over 41 points and 454 yards while scoring 63 touchdowns. Better than 1982, which saw quarterback Todd Blackledge, tailback Curt Warner and Jackson in the first round of the NFL draft.

"As talent goes, there's no question that Bobby Engram is better than I was, and Freddie Scott has the opportunity to be better than I was," Jackson told the Philadelphia Inquirer recently. "They're a better pair than me and Greg Garrity. I mean, people don't realize how fast this offense is -- probably because of our uniforms."

Engram and Scott, the team's wide receivers, have combined for 43 catches, 1,013 yards and nine of the team's 12 touchdown passes. And the running game is no longer what Collins referred to as "traditionally three yards and a cloud of dust." Led by Ki-Jana Carter, it's 6.4 yards a carry and 23 touchdowns, with opponents left in the dust.

"I have never seen a team so explosive," said Michigan coach Gary Moeller. "I don't know if there is a weakness."

The weakness was supposed to be Collins, a 6-foot-5, 235-pound fifth-year senior whose career was slowed by injury, inconsistency and the inability to gain Paterno's confidence. After taking over from John Sacca early last season, Collins was erratic until the past two games, including a victory over Tennessee and Heath Shuler in the Citrus Bowl.

"He's always had the ability," Paterno said of Collins, who has completed 68 of 98 passes this year for 1,220 yards and 11 touchdowns (and only three interceptions). "He's very poised, very confident. He's learning all the time. Part of the fact [for his success] is that when he delivers the ball, they can run with it."

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