College football countdown: No. 20 Penn St.

Tuesday, July 18th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Paterno climbs on back of defense

Those who watched Penn State's 24-0 thumping of Texas A&M in the Sylvania Alamo Bowl might raise an eyebrow when Joe Paterno talks about his Nittany Lions defensive performance of late.

The man who should become Division I-A's winningest coach this year isn't very happy.

People do not realize that we have not been a good defensive football team since we have been in the Big 10," said Paterno, who needs six victories to tie Paul "Bear" Bryant's record of 323 career wins. "In fact, I talked to the squad about it [during the offseason]. I want them to understand . . . we have to be better than we've been, because people are winning this league by playing great defense."

Paterno, whose team joined the Big 10 in 1993, cites two main aspects of its performance. First, the Nittany Lions lost their last three games of the Big Ten season (after a 9-0 start overall), largely because they couldn't hold leads. He also laments his team finishing 42nd, 70th, 50th, 41st, 86th, 12th and 26th nationally in total defense the past seven years.

"If we are going to be a better football team," Paterno said, "we can't be 70th in the country defensively or 86th or 50th. We have to be closer to being in the top 10."

That will be a tall order this season.

Penn State returns eight starters on offense, including quarterback Rashard Casey and a stable of talented running backs. But the defense must replace nine starters, including three first-team All-Americans - Courtney Brown and LaVar Arrington, the first two picks in the NFL Draft, and Brandon Short.

Defensive linemen Justin Kurpeikis and Jimmy Kennedy are the only returning starters.

Not only that, but also Jerry Sandusky retired after 32 years on Paterno's coaching staff, including the past 23 as defensive coordinator. His departure led to the rebuilding of Penn State's defensive staff. Tom Bradley, entering his 22nd year in the program, will replace Sandusky while continuing to coach defensive backs.

"I have laid down a challenge to Tom Bradley [and the defensive coaches]," Paterno said. "If you are playing tough, hard-nosed defense the whole game, you are usually going to end up winning in the late part of the game, I didn't think we did that [last year]. I felt the one thing we had to do was get some of these kids a little tougher mentally.

"I have been pleased with how well they have responded. I am hopeful that we will be a better defensive football team."

Penn State Scehdule- Aug 27 Southern Cal; Sept. 2 Toledo; Sept. 9 La. Tech; Sept 16 at Pittsburgh; Sept. 23 at Ohio State; Sept. 30 Purdue; Oct. 7 at Minnesota; Oct. 21 Illinois; Oct. 28 at Indiana; Nov. 4 Iowa; Nov. 11 at Michigan; Nov. 18 Michigan State.

Penn State Nittany Lions Capsule

COACH: Joe Paterno (317-83-3 in 34 seasons at Penn State and overall).

LAST YEAR: 10-3, 11th AP and USA Today-ESPN

OUT: Nine defensive starters and virtually all of the defensive coaching staff, including coordinator Jerry Sandusky, who retired after 32 seasons on staff (23 as coordinator).

IN: Eric Sturdifen, Ron Graham and Shamar Finney are the leading candidates to replace standout linebackers LaVar Arrington and Brandon Short.

BIG PLUS: With a ton of talent returning on offense, an inexperienced defense won't have to carry the load.

BIG MINUS: The Nittany Lions must play at Ohio State, to open their Big 10 schedule, and at Michigan.

NATIONAL TITLE IF: A few playmakers emerge on defense and the inexperienced unit, under a new coordinator, can get rolling quickly.

BOTTOM LINE: Too many questions, but Paterno will get his seven victories and surpass Paul "Bear" Bryant as Division I-A's winningest coach. Ten wins again this year would be very good.

Top 25 So Far

25. Clemson
24. Mississippi
23. So. Miss
22. Utah
21. Texas A&M
20 Penn State