UNIVERSITY PARK —
The heat is on Joe Paterno to turn things around at injury-riddled Penn State after two lackluster losses.
The offensively challenged Nittany Lions (3-3, 0-2 Big Ten) have been inept in the red zone, while the short-handed defense has numerous players sidelined.
Some fans pointed blame at Paterno and his veteran coaching staff after the disheartening 33-13 homecoming loss last week to Illinois, and it's hard to blame them. Even JoePa himself said he wasn't up to par in that defeat.
"I don't think I did a very good job of coaching or getting ready for the game, to be frank with you," Paterno said Tuesday during the Big Ten coaches teleconference. "We just weren't on top of some things, didn't make a couple of adjustments we could have made."
Toss in double-digit road losses to ranked opponents Alabama and Iowa, and a few rabid backers have dusted off the "Joe Must Go" phrase on Internet message boards, their comments a little more noticeable with the team struggling.
The good news for fans is that Penn State will not lose this week. They have a bye, and will play struggling Minnesota (1-5, 0-2) on Oct. 23.
Cory Giger, host of the "Sports Central" radio show heard throughout central Pennsylvania, took about 30 calls Monday with nearly everyone critical of the coaches, particularly on offense. About 10 callers were critical of Paterno and said it was time for him to go.
Not that Paterno has heard or seen any of the criticism — this 83-year-old Hall of Famer says he never reads the newspaper, let alone surf the Web.
"I haven't got time to even think about that," Paterno said in brief response when asked if he had a message for those critical fans. "I'm just trying to get our team a little better."
Was the criticism fair?
"I don't even know what kind of criticism (it) is," he said. "Send me a detailed list, and I'll tell you."
No one doubts Paterno's impeccable credentials. No coach has led one school as long as Paterno. He is in his 45th season and is three wins shy of his 400th career victory, most among major college coaches.
Never one to admit — at least publicly — a desire to reach milestones, Paterno said getting to 400 is even further from his mind these days.
"Not right now," he said, his voice a bit raspy. "Right now, it's to get a victory."
His closest competitor for the "most wins" title was Florida State's Bobby Bowden. He finished with 389 victories — minus 12 that were vacated by Florida State this year because of an academic cheating scandal.
A messy split with school administrators just a year ago ended with Bowden retiring after the 2009 season.
Paterno doesn't appear to have that kind of rocky relationship with Penn State president Graham Spanier. JoePa is in the second year of a three-year deal signed after the Big Ten championship season in 2008, with all sides agreeing at the time in a statement that terms of the deal could be "shortened or extended as necessary."
A notable encounter between Spanier and Paterno did occur in 2004, when the Nittany Lions were at the end of a rough stretch of four losing seasons in five years. Paterno has said he rebuffed a request by administrators to step down, and asked they keep him and his veteran staff together for a shot at turning things around.
They did — and then some. Penn State won two Big Titles and 51 games over the next five seasons.
"Joe has transformed a lot of what we've done in the game," Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said Tuesday. "Just the excellence that he has always embodied. Anyone that gets a chance to line up against him remembers those days."
But the 3-3 start this year has been disappointing for the blue-and-white faithful, especially a 20-point home loss to Illinois that took many by surprise. For many fans, anything short of a national title or a Big Ten run is considered a disappointment.
Instead of getting better, the team has regressed. And injuries could make the rest of the season even more challenging.
The latest to go down is safety Nick Sukay, done for the year after tearing his pectoral muscle in the first quarter vs. Illinois. Penn State has now lost a starter in each of the last three games, including right tackle Lou Eliades (right knee) and tight end Garry Gilliam (left knee).
Freshman quarterback Rob Bolden struggled against the Illini, and the running game is stagnant behind an uneven offensive line.
After a couple days off, the team was due to regroup Tuesday.
"We've got to be encouraging. We've got to get some of these young kids to realize that we still have the kind of potential that we felt they've had," Paterno said. "We've just got to go out and say, 'Hey, this is what we've got to do to get better,' and let's recommit ourselves to getting better and see where we go."