STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) For one week at least, Penn State players thought all jobs were wide open.
It was partly a motivational tactic by coach Joe Paterno to fire up a largely lackluster team. Some starters did sit out entirely – but that was because they were on the team’s extensive injury list.
Paterno expects to get three key linebackers back from injury for Saturday’s game at Minnesota. In the end, though, the spirited bye week competition didn’t yield changes except to patch up positions where players were hurt.
And there’s so much more to be done at Penn State (3-3, 0-2 Big Ten) with the 33-13 loss to Illinois two weeks ago still lingering over Happy Valley like a bad stench. Even the 45th-year head coach has admitted he needs to improve after a lousy job against the Illini.
“Little things here and there again. The make-up of the team has been changing every week,” Paterno said Tuesday at Beaver Stadium. “It’s been a tough job, probably as tough as any time I’ve been in coaching.”
Playing with more emotion has been emphasized in practice, part of the reason for the open competition for playing time during the bye week. Cornerback D’Anton Lynn kept his job, but said he got the message in practice.
“They were long. They were tough. It was similar to camp,” Lynn said Tuesday. “I think some people were getting comfortable. It woke people up.”
At least JoePa feels he will have a few more bodies back when Penn State travels to Minneapolis this weekend. At least 13 players who would be first- or second-stringers on the depth chart have missed time due to injuries, with the defense taking the most hits.
Paterno said linebackers Gerald Hodges (left leg), Michael Mauti (right ankle) and Bani Gbadyu (left calf) have returned to practice and should be ready Saturday as the Nittany Lions try to rebound from two straight losses by 20 or more. Of the three, Hodges is the rustiest after having sat out since getting hurt a month ago at Alabama.
The prognosis isn’t as promising on the defensive line, where end Eric Latimore (left wrist) will be out at least another two weeks, and might be done for the rest of the year.
Fellow end Jack Crawford also hasn’t returned to practice because of his injured right foot, and Paterno said he doubts if he’ll be ready this weekend.
That leaves part-time starter Pete Massaro and reserve Kevion Latham as the top ends, backed up two true freshmen in Kyle Baublitz and converted tackle DaQuan Jones.
It sure would help JoePa to have promising sophomore Sean Stanley back on the field. He returned to practice last week after sitting out two games because of an unspecified off-field issue.
That concern became public this week after university police charged the 19-year-old defensive end with possession of a small amount of marijuana, a misdemeanor. But when asked about Stanley’s status for Saturday, Paterno cut off the reporter and declined comment, barking “Next question! I’m not going to get into that nonsense.”
With Nick Sukay (pectoral muscle) done for the year, Drew Astorino has moved to free safety with Andrew Dailey now starting for him at strong safety. Chaz Powell has returned to the secondary from receiver and will replenish depth.
Paterno also said he didn’t plan changes on the offensive line, and that the front five had received too much criticism. He blamed himself in part for that, too.
The Nittany Lions are last in the Big Ten in points (18.2 per game), total offense (335.2 yards), and red zone efficiency (14 of 20 including just six TDs), and second-to-last in rushing (126 yards).
Paterno doesn’t want pity because of the injury situation.
“I’m not going to use that as an excuse. We have to have some people rise to the occasion, that’s all,” he said. “It will happen. One of these days, we’ll get a couple guys to make some plays and they’ll bring some people with them.”