Once upon a time, when Wisconsin was known as the best football team in the Big Ten, Barry Alvarez had a stigma for scheduling the non-conference equivalent of Francois Botha, butterball teams that helped the Badgers prepare for real heavyweight contenders later in the season.
Murray State, San Jose State, Ball State ? you know the names. Or, rather, you don’t know the names, and that was the point.
If that wasn’t bad enough, critics of UW pointed out that, in at least one of those Rose Bowl years, the team was not even playing the hardest Big Ten opponents available, i.e. Penn State.
Well, look how far we’ve come as a program.
After two years of “dodging” the Nittany Lions, Wisconsin, finally, must face the bell and get in the ring with Penn State.
Forgive me if I’m not looking at this match-up as if it were the Lewis-Rahman rematch.
The Badgers have had their troubles. Shoe Box suspensions and maybe a slightly overrated squad led to a disappointing 9-4 record last year. Barry Alvarez’s team also limps into Happy Valley just 1-2 thus far in 2001.
But UW’s extraordinarily young talent has shown some spark, and it won’t surprise many to get off the canvas and have a good year, not to mention a shining future.
How good the Badgers were never seemed to be the issue with this game anyway. This was about heading into mighty Beaver Stadium to stare down mighty Penn State and keep geriatric Joe Paterno from breaking mighty Bear Bryant’s record.
Okay, the Nittany Lions’ game at Virginia last Thursday was postponed, so Paterno can only tie Bryant this weekend. But something else in that sentence doesn’t seem to fit.
Joe Paterno is old. Really old.
When I met him in August, I wasn’t looking up at an immense coaching giant. All I saw was a tiny old man whose severely hunched shoulders suggested I would do well to start practicing my posture.
If Paterno were only slumping during interviews, there wouldn’t be any concern. Penn State went just 5-7 last year ? Paterno’s worst record at the school ? and lost three of its final four games in 1999, when the team began the season No. 3 nationally.
How much that has to do with Paterno’s age is a matter of debate. After all, he struggled last year, balancing Rashard Casey’s legal conflicts and Adam Taliaferro’s life-threatening injury with running a successful football team.
The 33-7 season-opening home loss to Miami suggests that Penn State will likely flounder again this year, but doesn’t negate an Evander Holyfield-like comeback.
The problem is that Paterno’s usually-stacked recruiting classes are disappearing. The 2001 Nittany Lions feature exactly zero all-Big Ten or All-Americans, not even at the once-lauded linebacker spot. Incoming kids aren’t bucking the trend, as Paterno has begun to lose Pennsylvania recruits to other visible programs.
He gets defensive if you ask him about how he’s going to get used to losing, or mention the whispers about retirement that get less whisper-like each year.
“I don’t know what you people are going to write in your newspaper,” Paterno told me in August. “This team is going to be good again. Soon. We haven’t forgotten how to play football at Penn State.”
For the record, the force of his words might have been greater if he hadn’t, in the same breath, proceeded to cough himself red in the face.
I think everyone has a soft spot in their hearts for the old guy, so it’s hard to speak poorly of him. But that’s precisely why it would be a shame to see him get pummeled into retirement like an aging Muhammad Ali.
It’s painful to see one of college football’s all-time heavyweights bleeding face-down on the mat. But like all heavyweights, Paterno insists on going out on his own punch-drunk terms.