Back on top, Paterno hopes to keep Penn State among elite

Penn State football coach Joe Paterno talks to the media Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2006 in Miami Beach, Fla., about the Orange Bowl game and the three overtime victory over Florida State.

AP Photo/J. Pat Carter
Published: Thursday, January 5, 2006 at 1:06 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 5, 2006 at 1:06 p.m.

MIAMI (AP) - Penn State's triumphant season started with the promise of improvement but also some big questions: Would a stingy defense get enough support from a retooled offense? Would the prized freshmen have a big impact? Would Michael Robinson succeed at quarterback?

Check, check and check. Coach Joe Paterno has the Nittany Lions back among college football's elite. Now, he's got to figure out how to keep them there.

"I'm anxious to stay with it. I had a lot of fun with this team," Paterno said Wednesday. "I'm enjoying it. I don't see a reason for me to get out of it."

As for planning for next year?

"That's always a challenge," said Paterno, operating on just two hours of sleep after Penn State's 26-23 triple-overtime win over Florida State in the Orange Bowl.

He'll have some holes to fill. Among the departures are charismatic leader Robinson and seven seniors on defense, including the entire secondary and three linemen. That tight-knit unit gave opponents fits and stifled running backs such as Laurence Maroney of Minnesota and Brian Calhoun of Wisconsin.

One of those departing will be defensive end Tamba Hali, who drew attention for his pass rushing prowess, including a key sack of Troy Smith in the Nittany Lions' statement-making win over Ohio State.

Junior Paul Posluszny revived the school's "Linebacker U." image with a stellar season that earned him awards for being the nation's top defensive player and linebacker. He had been thinking about foregoing his senior year to enter the NFL draft, though his health is a bigger question now after he was carted off the field during the fourth quarter of the Orange Bowl with a right knee injury.

Paterno said Wednesday that early tests revealed possible ligament damage, with more exams to be performed this week.

Known for his quiet intensity and work ethic, Posluszny pleaded with coaches to get back into the game after the injury. He later vowed to doctors that he would be the "fastest rehab guy you'll ever have," defensive coordinator Tom Bradley said.

"He's an amazing guy," Bradley said. "I don't know what 'it' is, but he's got it."

A big injury hit the offense, too, when freshman sensation Derrick Williams broke his left upper arm during the last-second loss to Michigan that spoiled Penn State's bid for an undefeated season. He finished with three rushing scores and a TD reception, and was a threat to reach the end zone nearly every time he touched the ball.

Fellow freshman and two-way player Justin King also saw heavy playing time from the season's start _ once a Paterno rarity. He played mostly receiver toward the end of the season, but may be headed back to cornerback next year to replenish the secondary.

Another freshman, Jordan Norwood, emerged as a sure-handed receiver who wasn't afraid to go over the middle, and redshirt freshman Deon Butler led the squad with nine touchdown catches.

They'll be back, as will hard-nosed rusher Tony Hunt, who left the Orange Bowl in the first quarter appearing to favor his left ankle, though Paterno said Wednesday that Hunt's injury wasn't serious.

Also returning is backup Austin Scott, whose collegiate career so far hasn't matched his impressive high school credentials, though he did get 120 yards and two touchdowns on the ground against Florida State in place of Hunt.

The areas of most uncertainty on offense next season may sound familiar: offensive line and quarterback.

Paterno's line grew into a solid corps after having been shuffled early on, when three players were benched or demoted for off-field indiscretions and right tackle John Wilson went down with a knee injury.

For next season, Paterno must replace four starting seniors and possibly even junior left tackle Levi Brown, a second-team All-American, who may enter the NFL draft.

The biggest loss will be Robinson, the dual-threat quarterback who ran for 11 touchdowns, threw for 17 more and used his poise and determination to lead the offense.

The turning point of the season? Most Nittany Lions cite the fourth-and-15 play late against Northwestern, when Robinson hit tight end Isaac Smolko for a 20-yard gain to keep the game-winning drive alive.

Robinson later connected with an open Williams on a third-and-6 from the Wildcat 36 for the touchdown. Penn State won the game and confidence that its offense could come through in the clutch.

Anthony Morelli, who is more of a pocket passer, will likely take over for Robinson. It will be a tough challenge to replace someone that Paterno calls "one of the best players ever to play at Penn State."

A restless Paterno got up early Wednesday morning and started doodling out potential starting lineups for next season.

"That's always the fun of it," he said. "Can we put another good football team together?"

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