Paterno defends Eastern Illinois matchup

October 6, 2009 6:05:40 PM PDT
Joe Paterno came prepared for an obvious question with lower-division school Eastern Illinois up next for No. 14 Penn State. The Hall of Fame coach pulled a sheet of paper out of his pocket and read a list of other programs also playing FCS opponents when asked why the Nittany Lions filled out their midseason schedule with a Big Ten breather.

"I'm glad you asked me about all those other teams playing (FCS) schools," Paterno said before rattling off about a dozen programs to start a testy exchange with a reporter. "You got Michigan, Florida, Miami of Florida, Oklahoma, Alabama ..."

A bye week right about now might have been ideal for banged-up Penn State (4-1, 1-1 Big Ten).

Paterno declared Sean Lee out for a third straight game because of a sprained left knee - though the top linebacker probably wouldn't have been needed anyway for Eastern Illinois, a school that plays in the Ohio Valley Conference.

Right tackle Nerraw McCormack, who helped solidify the line after being promoted to starter last week, is doubtful because of a right ankle injury. Other players are working through assorted aches and pains found this time of the football season.

"If we had an open date, we'd have a chance to give those kids a rest," Paterno said.

But budget issues beckon for Penn State athletics: Revenue from home football games helps finance other university teams, so schools that used to only play 11 regular-season games are taking advantage of the NCAA allowing a 12-game schedule.

"We had an open date. We had a chance to play 12 games, which means money so we can support the other 28 sports on this campus," Paterno said. "You go around and you try to get somebody that will be appropriate."

Paterno did voice interest in adding a nonconference game in future seasons after the Big Ten schedule ends in late November, similar to what Illinois and Wisconsin are doing this season.

Now that the NCAA allows schools in the highest division, the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), to count one victory over a Football Championship Subdivision opponent toward the six-win minimum for bowl eligibility, games like Saturday's contest with Eastern Illinois on Saturday become more attractive.

The Nittany Lions have had other games against FCS teams in recent seasons against Youngstown State and Coastal Carolina. Another contest against Arkansas State was canceled last season in favor of a made-for-TV matchup against Pac-10 team Oregon State.

Paterno said associate athletic director Fran Ganter, who handles scheduling, would have come to him if a similar opportunity for a better opponent came up this season.

Other top-division schools are also dipping into lower divisions for games. Paterno in the past has said it's difficult to get other FBS schools to commit to coming to Beaver Stadium.

He bristled at suggestions that Eastern Illinois is a pushover.

"I think Eastern Illinois is a good, solid football team," said Paterno, a description he's used often in the past. "We were fortunate enough to get Eastern Illinois, a good football tradition, and a fine program."

The Panthers (4-1, 2-1 OVC), ranked 25th in the Sports Network's poll of FCS schools, lost at home last week to Ohio Valley rival Eastern Kentucky.

One reporter kept pressing, asking if there was a need for a 12th game in college football.

"Now you're in a whole different ball game. No one ever asked me about scheduling 12 games," Paterno said. "Strictly a financial situation that was determined by people in higher places than the head football coach."

Paterno angrily raised his voice when prodded about whether fans should pay the same price for Eastern Illinois tickets as for Ohio State tickets.

"That's up to them, stop belaboring the question," Paterno said. "Is it worth it for you coming to the game? That's your decision. Don't get me into that will you? For crying out loud, we're playing a good football team!"

His players don't appear to be taking Eastern Illinois lightly.

"I go in like every other game. You're coming out here to play some football," said linebacker Nate Stupar. "We go through every process like, 'Hey, this team can beat us."'

Stupar is another on a long list of injured Nittany Lions, though he said he's almost 100 percent recovered from a sprained ankle. Receiver Devon Smith may play if tests show he's over a concussion, but backup defensive tackle Brandon Ware is out with a broken right foot.

During an entertaining 40-minute session with reporters, Paterno added this gem about the 6-foot-3, 341-pound Ware when asked to assess tackle play.

"A big, fat bottom with good feet," Paterno said to describe Ware. "We thought he'd be in there, but he got hurt and hasn't done anything for three weeks."

Paterno also declined comment on the situation at Florida State with head coach Bobby Bowden, who trails Paterno 387-384 in the race for most victories by a major college coach. The chairman of the university trustees said this week he wanted Bowden to retire at the end of this season.

Paterno said he purposely did not prepare for that question. He said he was told by a football staffer after a meeting before his press conference that Bowden was feeling pressure.

"'I said, 'What I don't know, I can't talk about,' so I didn't ask him any questions," Paterno said. "So I really don't know what to tell you."

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