Paterno Still Hasn't Lost It

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Joe must go?

Would that be to the Orange Bowl? Perhaps the Fiesta?

Maybe, just maybe, the Rose?

Only a year after yet another losing season ended with cries for the coach who has won more games than anyone but Bobby Bowden to retire or be nudged aside, Joe Paterno, Penn State's 78-year-old sideline icon, has the Nittany Lions on their way to a bowl championship series game.

The only question is which one.

With a 31-22 victory over Michigan State on Saturday at Spartan Stadium, fifth-ranked Penn State tied No. 9 Ohio State for the Big Ten title and claimed the conference's berth in a BCS game by virtue of a victory over Ohio State last month.

"They all want to take me out tonight," Paterno said as his players celebrated. "I said, 'No way.' "

In one of the better bits of judgment exhibited by rejoicing athletes, the Penn State players refrained from dumping the water bucket on their coach.

"They saw me blowing my nose," Paterno said. "We've got another game to play. This thing isn't over yet."

No, it isn't.

After four losing seasons in five years, Penn State is 10-1 — and oh-so-close to being undefeated after losing to Michigan on the final play of a game last month.

By the way, is up and running.

"A lot of people doubted us. A lot of people doubted Joe Paterno," quarterback Michael Robinson said.

The players got a title for their coach.

"But as bad as we wanted it for him, he wanted it for us," defensive end Tamba Hali said.

Paterno didn't want to talk about himself.

"These kids are the ones. They went through all that junk, the losing years, everybody doubting them."

Whether Paterno reinvented himself in his 40th year as the Nittany Lions' coach is hard to say.

He looks much the same, a slightly hunched figure on the sideline who still wears a shirt and tie under his heavy blue coat, and he insists he always knew his team wasn't far away.

A 4-7 record last season and a 3-9 mark in 2003 seemed plenty distant to almost everyone else.

But after last season, with dual-threat quarterback Robinson poised to replace four-year starter Zack Mills, a delegation of Penn State coaches took a trip to Texas to study the spread-option offense Vince Young runs so well.

This season, Penn State, home of the power-I, has lined up often with three and four wideouts, and Robinson — who also played running back and receiver as he waited his turn to be the No. 1 quarterback — finally blossomed.

Against Michigan State, he passed for 105 yards and one touchdown and ran for 90 more, including a 33-yard touchdown that gave Penn State a 17-0 lead in the second quarter.

But it was the defense that did the job on a day when Paterno called his team "sloppy."

Safety Donnie Johnson blocked a punt that Matt Hahn recovered for a momentum-changing touchdown, and Johnson intercepted a pass in the end zone as well.

Cornerback Alan Zemaitis picked off three of Michigan State quarterback Drew Stanton's passes, and three times the Nittany Lions turned away the Spartans in the red zone.

Paterno, with two national championships, five undefeated seasons and 353 victories, has a contract through 2008, when he'll turn 82.

"His thing is, 'What's next?' If he were to retire, what do you do?" quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno, Joe's son, said by phone earlier in the week. "Joe doesn't golf, hunt or fish. Outside of football, he listens to classical music or reads books."

He'll quit one day, of course, or his body will decide he has coached his last game.

Jay wonders.

"Every once in a while I go for a walk in the woods with him," he said. "No matter how fast I walk, he goes two steps faster. I can easily see him going four or five more years.

"He's never voiced to me that maybe it's time. Maybe he talks to my mom, but I've never heard him utter it."