Joe Paterno returning to the sideline

September 4, 2009 5:05:33 PM PDT
The boss is back on the field at Penn State. Exchanging a cane for a new hip, Hall of Fame coach Joe Paterno will return to the sideline Saturday when the No. 9 Nittany Lions host Akron in the season opener.

He's bringing Sean Lee with him, too, after his star linebacker missed 2008 with an injured right knee.

Lee can't tell who is more excited to be back on the Beaver Stadium turf.

"I don't know," he said with a laugh, pondering for a few seconds. "I know (Paterno) is going to be excited to be out there with us. ... He takes pride being on the sideline."

The 82-year-old Paterno coached the final seven games of the 2008 season from various press boxes, ailing from a hip he hurt while trying to boot an onside kick in practice a year ago.

He underwent surgery Nov. 23, the day after the Nittany Lions routed Michigan State to clinch the Big Ten and the Rose Bowl berth.

Enough with press boxes, he's said throughout the summer.

"I think everything will be good," Paterno said this week. "I'm looking forward to getting back on the sideline."

This will be another milestone year for a Hall-of-Fame coach whose resume is already full of accomplishments - a mind-boggling 60 years at Penn State: 16 as an assistant, the next 44 as the man in charge.

His 383 victories place him one ahead of Florida State's Bobby Bowden for most wins among major college coaches.

But it's one loss that's been eating away at Paterno all offseason - the 38-24 defeat to Southern California at the Rose Bowl. The goal is to get back to Pasadena this year, whether as a participant in the BCS title game, or as the Big Ten champion in a Rose Bowl return.

It's a reachable ambition, even with just nine starters returning, not including Lee.

Star quarterback Daryll Clark is back to coordinate the spread HD attack, and a weak nonconference schedule should give the Nittany Lions time to jell before the Big Ten slate starts.

Akron coach J.D. Brookhart knows there's a talent disparity between Penn State and his Mid-American Conference squad.

"A bounce of the ball will determine whether they are Top 10 or Top 15," Brookhart said. "It's not like they went off and had three bad recruiting years. There's good players in that house."

Start with Lee and fellow linebacker Navorro Bowman, who lead one of the deepest linebacking corps in the country.

Tackle Jared Odrick paces a solid defensive line that needs to pressure third-year QB Chris Jacquemain to slow down Akron's spread offense.

The Zips also return their top four receivers and four offensive linemen. Paterno fears it will be an early test for Penn State's secondary, revamped with four new starters.

"Contrary to what people think, Akron is a fine football team," said Paterno, always one to talk up an opponent.

It's on the other side of the ball, though, where Akron could be overwhelmed. Six starters return from a unit that gave up more than 397 yards and 31 points a game.

The Zips could be the perfect foe to allow the Nittany Lions' rebuilt offensive line to gain confidence, and for Clark to mesh with his new, taller receiving corps. On average, the Penn State receivers could have a height advantage of roughly three or four inches over the Akron defensive backs.

"You see it each and every year ... they reload," said Brookhart, whose last visit to Beaver Stadium in 2006 ended with a 34-16 loss.

The players change, but Paterno remains the blue-and-white constant.

On Saturday, his distinct voice with the hint of a Brooklyn accent will be heard again on the field, tormenting officials and pleading with his players.

"It's going to be real exciting because this is where Joe belongs, on the sideline," Clark said.

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NOTE: University police have charged redshirt freshman Michael Zordich with driving under the influence and underage drinking in connection with a traffic stop early Sunday morning, authorities said Friday in a police log. An athletic department spokesman said Friday he was not aware of any change in status with the team for Zordich, a backup linebacker who turns 20 in October.

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