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Madden: Unpleasant finish for Johnson, PSU

Saturday, January 04, 2003

What a putrid finish to a Penn State football season that was otherwise decent. The Nittany Lions lost an altogether forgettable Capital One Bowl, 13-9, to Auburn. Joe Paterno nixed any hope Penn State had to build offensive momentum by giving senior back Larry Johnson just two carries in the first quarter. Johnson publicly criticized Paterno in the immediate aftermath.

Penn State looked bad. Paterno coached badly. And Johnson sounded stupid. No winners at all in the Happy Valley camp.

But Johnson was unquestionably the biggest loser. There can be no doubting his bitterness when it comes to his Penn State career. Perhaps it is justified. Johnson topped 2,000 yards this season. But last season, he was part of a three-tailback platoon along with Omar Easy and Eric McCoo, an idiotic coaching move (or non-move) which likely still sticks in Johnson's craw. He went from part-timer to Heisman finalist in one year, but he didn't just suddenly get good. He should have been the No. 1 back for at least two years.

There's no justifying Johnson's post-game remarks Wednesday, although he was right to be upset about his number of first-quarter carries.

But Johnson got 18 carries after the first quarter and wound up with just 72 yards total. His numbers reinforced the prevailing opinion that he's a below-average back when Penn State plays above-average teams. Johnson seems very sensitive to that rap, probably because he fears it's true.

Johnson's criticisms were valid. He should have carried the ball more early in the game. He should have carried the ball in a crucial third-and-3 situation late in the third quarter. He was correct to evaluate Penn State as "panicky and scared" in tight situations.

But Wednesday was not the time to air such a scathing critique, especially in the wake of a bad performance on his part. It was the time for Johnson to look in the mirror, something he doesn't seem particularly fond of doing. At the very least, he should have kept his trap shut and exited Penn State with a modicum of class. Instead, he'll be remembered as a loud-mouth.

I was embarrassed for Johnson when he said, "Two carries in the first quarter is ridiculous for someone who supposedly earned all these awards." Give me a break. The last thing anyone wants to hear about following a loss is what's in your trophy cabinet. Especially when it lacks a Heisman.

Some believe Johnson will not be a very good pro, that he'll follow in the footsteps of Ki-Jana Carter and Blair Thomas, star backs at Penn State who underachieved in the pros.

I don't buy it. Johnson is a potent combination of size, strength and speed. If he posted lesser numbers against the better teams on Penn State's schedule, it's because he was let down by a very substandard offensive line. In many games, he succeeded despite his blocking.

Once Penn State's passing game stiffed early against Auburn, the Tigers brought everyone but the drum major up on the line. All that considered, 72 yards on 20 carries was hardly disastrous.

Johnson was lucky that Paterno handled defeat better than Johnson did. "I'm not the kind of guy to point fingers," Paterno said, but if he were, he could have made a convincing argument that Johnson played badly in the Capital One Bowl and in several of Penn State's big games this season.

Instead, Paterno said the right things. Which is why, except when he's physically and verbally abusing Big Ten referees, he's still Joe Paterno. Kind of, anyway.

He's not going to retire, not yet, and probably not ever. Paterno can be blamed for mangling the game plan Wednesday. Paterno's credibility was further damaged when he was openly questioned by Johnson and defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy. I don't believe that a 76-year-old man who looks like an extra from "Goodfellas" can relate to today's young black athlete, and maybe JoePa's mini-feud with Johnson (who also criticized Paterno's offensive philosophy two years ago) is proof.

But, after two horrible seasons, the Nittany Lions went 9-4 and played in a New Year's Day bowl game. Interest in Penn State football is still monstrous. All that is a feather in Paterno's cap. He got a lot of blame for his team's struggles the past two seasons. He must now get his share of the credit.

As for Johnson, his bowl showing won't help his NFL draft status. Nor will him popping off. If he was a malcontent in college, he might be a malcontent in the pros. Some say he'll go top 10, some say late in the first round. The Steelers will be tempted if Johnson is there when they choose, but, we can hope, they would resist said temptation and pick a much-needed cornerback. They'll probably pick a lineman.

Johnson rushed for an average of 71 yards in Penn State's four losses. In Penn State's nine victories, he averaged 200 yards.

Johnson still has plenty to prove. No such thing can be said about Paterno. That's why Johnson should have thought before he spoke Wednesday.


Mark Madden's talk show is heard from 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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