Saturday, November 19, 2011
PSU masters crisis management in big win
By Adam Rittenberg
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The tendency during a time of crisis is to go conservative, limit risks and simply try to survive.
Penn State is mired in a crisis, perhaps the biggest crisis in college sports history. A sex-abuse scandal has enveloped the institution. Beloved football coach Joe Paterno has been fired, and recently his son Scott said his father had been diagnosed with a treatable form of lung cancer. Assistant coach Mike McQueary has been placed on administrative leave. Coaches are shuffling responsibilities. The future is hazy.
And, by the way, Penn State finds itself in the thick of the Big Ten title race.
Given these circumstances, few would blame Penn State, already known as one of the nation's most conservative football programs, to play it even safer with its schemes and personnel. Crisis Management 101, right?
Interim coach Tom Bradley and his staff decided this would be the perfect time to shake up the offense. The Wildcat formation, run by two former high school quarterbacks, Curtis Drake and Bill Belton, fueled a potent rushing attack in Penn State's 20-14 victory against Ohio State at Ohio Stadium.
The new wrinkle led to a new result in a place Penn State had won just once before (2008) as a member of the Big Ten.
"With all that we've been going through, we need a spark," said Drake, who had a 38-yard scamper and finished with 50 yards on three carries. "We need something new, we need to uplift ourselves. ... [The coaches] were looking at it just to say, 'We've got nothing else to lose. We've been kicked, we've been spit on by everybody. So now let's just go out and play.'"
Curtis Drake was one of two Penn State players to take snaps out of the wildcat. "With all that we've been going through, we need a spark," Drake said.
Penn State set the tone Saturday on its opening drive when Drake, lined up in the Wildcat, took the snap and handed the ball to Stephfon Green, who raced 39 yards to the end zone. Penn State racked up 91 yards out of the Wildcat in the first half and finished the game with 239 rush yards and two touchdowns on 39 carries (6.1 ypc).
Belton had practiced at quarterback on the scout team heading into the Nebraska game. After seeing Belton "torch" his defense for 10 days, Bradley wanted to use Belton against the opposition. Drake always had been an option at Wildcat, but his recovery from a leg injury kept the plan on hold.
"We'd thought about it a while ago, but we never just got to the package," Bradley said. "We thought today coming in, it would just give us a little change of pace, which it did."
No team in America could use a change of pace more than Penn State. The program has been under siege the past two weeks. Paterno's firing last Wednesday triggered an outpouring of emotion, and the players weren't immune from it.
Then came Friday, when Bradley informed the players of Paterno's cancer diagnosis.
"When it rains, it pours," linebacker Glenn Carson said. "That was what was said amongst each other. It's been a tough week, it's been a tough couple days for us. But I can't be more proud of how this team [handled] the adversity."
Joe's son Jay, the team's quarterbacks coach, wanted to keep the news about his father private until the end of the season, but realized it wouldn't be possible with the intense media attention. While Jay Paterno learned of his father's diagnosis last week, he didn't even tell his children until Friday.
Bradley repeatedly checked in with Jay Paterno, telling him if he needed to miss a meeting to be with his family, don't hesitate to do go. Jay stayed.
"I would go to work and look at film of Ohio State and that was frightening enough," he said. "Working on the game plan, it really kept me distracted. ... It's one of those things that if I didn't do my job and didn't carry it like I'm supposed to, I think I'd be disappointed in myself. But it's not easy."
The other coaches have taken a similar approach.
"It's very emotional," said defensive line coach Larry Johnson, who coordinated the defense with linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden on Saturday. "I try to leave the house in the morning, try to leave all that behind, walk in the [football] building and try to turn myself back into a coach as quick as possible. You can't help but have emotion with the things that have happened. The Coach Paterno news, the victims, we pray for them every day and we make sure we honor them.
"And then we go to work."
Johnson said the players, despite their age, might have an easier time focusing because they didn't know former assistant Jerry Sandusky and weren't at the school when the alleged sexual abuse occurred. But the players know Paterno and they know McQueary, who wide receiver Derek Moye said played a huge role communicating offensive plays and personnel decisions.
Although Friday's news was yet another blow, game day brought players a refuge.
"Guys are anxious to get on the field," quarterback Matthew McGloin said, "just to forget about what's been going on for however long it is, three hours, and just have fun and play the game. That's what we were able to do today, and that's what we were able to do all week in practice.
"Your problems off the field aren't going to go away, but once you step on the field, you have to focus."
In the Big Ten title race, Penn State's game Saturday meant nothing. Wisconsin's victory at Illinois earlier in the day ensured the Leaders Division would come down to next week's game between Penn State and the Badgers in Madison.
But for the Lions' players and coaches, Saturday meant everything, and it showed. Midway through the third quarter, Penn State faced fourth-and-goal from the Ohio State 1-yard line, leading by six.
"Normally, I would have probably kicked it," Bradley said. "But I felt that would have been the wrong decision. ... I'm asking those guys to go to the wall, so I'm going to the wall."
Although Penn State couldn't punch it in, it prevailed in the end. Team Crisis now heads to Madison with a chance to reach the Big Ten championship game.
"We're still at the top of the division, it's still in our hands," McGloin said. "I don't think people are too worried about what's going on outside."