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Football: Penn State seniors still hoping for redemption

Saturday, November 01, 2003

By Ray Fittipaldo, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Penn State's seniors gathered Monday afternoon before practice and talked about the state of the team. It was a catharsis for those who had come into the program when Penn State was a national championship contender.

Some of them, the fifth-year players, rubbed elbows with LaVar Arrington and Courtney Brown. That was 1999, when the Nittany Lions were in the hunt until they lost three consecutive conference games to close out the regular season.

 
 
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SCOUTING REPORT

Matchup: Penn State (2-6, 0-4 Big Ten) vs. No. 7 Ohio State (7-1, 3-1), 3:30 p.m. today, Beaver Stadium, University Park, Pa. Ohio State is favored by 7 1/2.

TV, Radio: WTAE, WEAE-AM and the Penn State Radio Network.

Penn State: Coming off 26-14 loss at Iowa. ... On a four-game losing streak in league play for the first time since joining the Big Ten in 1993. ... Off to its worst start since 1931 season. ... Leads the series, 10-8. ... RB Austin Scott leads the team with 379 rushing yards and five touchdowns. ... DBs Yaacov Yisrael and Alan Zemaitis each have three interceptions and are tied with three other players for second place in the conference in that category.

Ohio State: Coming off 35-6 victory against Indiana. ... Has won 21 of past 22 games, dating to last season. ... Has the No. 1 rush defense in Division I-A (51.5 yards per game). ... Has the No. 6 scoring defense (13.8 ppg). ... RB Lydell Ross leads the team with 408 yards rushing and eight touchdowns. ... QB Craig Krenzel is 90 of 157 (57.3 percent) for 1,155 yards, 6 touchdowns and 6 interceptions.

Hidden stat: The home team has won the past seven meetings in this series.

   
 

Other than last season's 9-4 finish, it's been downhill since.

The seniors have seen tough times during their tenure on campus. There was the 5-7 record in 2000, the worst for a Joe Paterno-coached team. There was the 0-4 start in '01. But nothing could compare to what they are going through this season. Seniors take disappointments harder because there is a sense of ownership.

"It was just a bunch of us sitting around, asking what can we do?" said fifth-year senior linebacker Deryck Toles. "We all kind of discussed what's going on, how things were when we first got here, how things are now, how we can make a difference before we leave here."

With half the Big Ten Conference games remaining, Penn State (2-6, 0-4) plays host to defending national champion Ohio State (7-1, 3-1) today at Beaver Stadium. The Lions are hoping to avoid a number of firsts (and worsts).

With one more loss, the Lions will have the longest losing streak of the Paterno era, which dates to 1966. With one more loss, they will have the most conference losses of any Penn State team since joining the Big Ten in '93. And, if things deteriorate down the stretch, they can lose more games than any other Penn State team has in the 117-year history of the program.

"It's real frustrating," Toles said. "This is my fifth year and we've already had two losing seasons. It's hard. It's like, 'What can you do?' Everyone you see is asking, 'What's going on with you guys?' It hurts. It hurts really bad. We just have to keep fighting. No one is going to give up no matter what happens."

Paterno does not have a lot of experience motivating a team that is in this position. Even when the Lions were going through their rough stretches in 2000 and '01, they were in bowl contention up until the final game or two of the season.

This team has no such aspirations, even though it could finish .500 and become bowl-eligible.

"We're playing for Penn State pride," said sophomore defensive tackle Tamba Hali. "We haven't won as many games as we would have liked. We can't play for a bowl game or other reasons. Right now, we just have to play and try and prove people wrong, show them that we are a good team."

Penn State and Ohio State have played some memorable games the past two years. Last season at Ohio Stadium, the Lions almost derailed the Buckeyes from their national championship season, but Chris Gamble's interception return for a touchdown in the third quarter and two field goals were enough to lift them to a 13-7 victory.

Two years ago at Beaver Stadium, the Lions overcame a 27-9 third-quarter deficit to beat the Buckeyes, 29-27. The victory vaulted Paterno past Bear Bryant on the all-time wins list.

The stakes aren't as high for either team this year. But for Penn State, beating the defending national champions in an off year would do wonders for morale.

"I think it would mean a lot to the football team and the program," Paterno said. "I don't think there is any question about that. I don't think this football team wants to go down as being a team that may lose more football games than any Penn State team has lost in 50, 60, 70 years."


Ray Fittipaldo can be reached at rfittipaldo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1230.

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