Saturday, October 18, 2008

Midshipmen fall to Pitt 42-21

Annapolis, MD – The 23rd ranked Pitt Panthers (4-1) visited Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium Saturday afternoon looking to avenge last season’s nationally televised double-OT loss to the Midshipmen (4-2).

Pitt dominated in every aspect of the game and racked up nearly 500 yards of offense (244 rushing and 255 passing). Scott McKillop and Pitt’s defense held the vaunted Navy rushing attack to just 194 yards and 12 first downs handing the Panthers the big win 42-21. McKillop finished the game with nine tackles.

Navy coach Ken Niumatololo was not happy with his team’s performance.

“We got our butts whipped. I did a bad job of getting us ready. They (Pitt coaches) did a good job of getting their players ready. We had a week to prepare; they had a week to prepare. They played better than we did. That starts with me.”

The Panthers took the opening drive and marched methodically down the field for 70 yards with LaRod Stephens hitting pay dirt from six yards out with just five minutes off the clock.

Navy answered on their ensuing possession when Shun White took a pitch from Jarod Bryant and rushed 40 yards to the end zone.

LeSean McCoy took over on the next drive. The sophomore carried four times including a two yard TD run to give the Panthers the lead 14-7.

Bryant was sacked and fumbled on Navy’s next offensive play and Pitt recovered on the Navy 17. Three running plays later, LaRod Stephens pounded the ball in from nine yards out to give Pitt the lead, 21-7.

Early in the second quarter, Rashawn King picked off Bill Stull at the one yard line and returned the INT 91 yards. On the next play, Bryant called his own number and ran it in from eight yards to cut Pitt’s lead to 21-14.

Once again Navy was unable to stop Pitt’s offense and the Panthers were able to pound in another touchdown on the ground. McCoy carried three consecutive plays with the final one a TD from 11 yards.

The Panthers took over once again following a Navy punt. With 1:16 remaining in the half, Pitt called McCoy’s number and he didn’t disappoint. McCoy rambled 58 yards to the end zone giving the Panthers a 35-14 lead at the half. McCoy finished the game with 156 yards and three TDs.

Bill Stull hooked up with freshman split end Jonathyn Baldwin for 60 yards and the score to give Pitt a 42-14 lead with 14:01 remaining in the fourth quarter. Baldwin finished the game with three catches for 101 yards.

Navy sophomore QB Ricky Dobbs came into the game late in the fourth quarter to spark the Navy offense. Dobbs completed a pass to Mario Washington for 39 yards to the Pitt 4 yard line. On the next play Dobbs carried the ball in himself (his first collegiate touchdown) to set the final at 42-21.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Two acts playing out in Happy Valley drama

The 2008 season dawned ripe with drama at Penn State, and it had little to do with the success of the football team, of which not much was expected. The Nittany Lions again had the look of a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team.

The drama of the season was supposed to be all about coach Joe Paterno, 81, and his desire to retire on his own terms and not at the end of this season. It was supposed to be about a contest of wills between Paterno, who maintains massive support from appreciative alumni who know and understand what he has done for the school, and high-ranking university administrators, who had failed to give him a contract extension and, by most accounts, were trying to gather the necessary strength to force him out of the job he has held since 1966.

But midway through the season, much has changed and the drama will play out on two fronts:

• The Lions are not an ordinary team. They're 6-0 and ranked sixth in the nation. The championship of the Big Ten, a conference that looks to be substandard this season, is within reach and with that comes the possibility of playing for the national title.

• Paterno's physical health has declined to the point where it could cause him to do something no one expected: retire of his own accord.

The Lions begin the most crucial part of their season this week when on successive Saturdays they play at Wisconsin, at Beaver Stadium against Michigan and at Ohio State.

Sadly, Paterno will probably be watching some or all of those games from the press box instead of the sidelines. There is some mystery about the exact condition of Paterno's right knee, but he is hobbling badly and looked like a man who will be 82 in two months when he made a brief appearance on the field before the game Saturday against Purdue.

The injury is said to have occurred three days before the season opener when Paterno was demonstrating a kicking technique. It appears to be getting worse instead of better, not all that surprising for someone his age. Some have speculated he has a ligament injury that will require surgery. A more authoritative source has said the problem is with his hip and that Paterno will require hip-replacement surgery after the season.

Paterno was on a golf cart at practice this week, a further indication that he is not getting better.
Having the head coach missing from the sidelines would be a critical issue for some teams, but it does not figure to much affect Penn State.

The Penn State players are used to Paterno not being around. He missed games in 2006 when he was injured in a sideline collision with two players in a game against Wisconsin. The accident broke a bone in his left leg and tore two ligaments in the knee.

Beyond that, Paterno often works from home during the week and doesn't have the presence with his players that most head coaches do. He delegates much of his decision-making power to assistant coaches.

Where it would be unfathomable to expect some teams to proceed without so much as a blip with their head coach absent, that would not be the case at Penn State.

Paterno is a proud man. He is understandably proud of his accomplishments on and off the football field and proud that he was still fit to lead a football team in his 80s, when most people have retired. He also prided himself in running onto the field with the team, something he did after recovering from the injury at Wisconsin but something he can do no more.

If there is anything that can make him walk away from the job he loves, it's being seen as a man not physically capable of doing his job. He denied accusations he was not mentally up to the challenge of coaching.

He laughed when people suggested the game had passed him by. But physically the evidence is there for all to see: He's a coach who's not coaching.

For a long time it seemed Paterno would lose out to Bobby Bowden in their ongoing contest to be the winningest major college coach in football history. When Paterno was going 21-26 from 2001-04 and Bowden was 36-15 in those same seasons, the contest looked over. But in the succeeding four seasons, Paterno is 35-9 and Bowden, under considerable pressure to step down at Florida State, 25-18.

Paterno has one more win than Bowden.

Paterno deserves this record because all his wins came at Penn State, a major-college program. Bowden's first 31 wins came at Howard College, now Stamford University, against teams such as Mississippi Delta, Millsaps (twice), Maryville, Memphis Navy, Louisiana College and National University of Mexico. Under incredibly stupid NCAA rules, those wins count.

What could be the perfect ending is advancing. It goes like this:

Penn State finished the season in glory -- Big Ten champions, maybe national champion, and with Paterno the all-time leader in wins and Bowden retiring. The stage is set and Paterno agrees to resign, reluctantly but proudly, amid a massive outpouring of congratulations. His once-tarnished image has been repaired by his final four seasons.

It could end that way. It should end that way.

Bob Smizik can be reached at

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Penn State basketball players go where nobody knows their names

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Walking down Curtin Road on a Penn State campus just beginning to clog with football fans, the proud alum practically spun around on his heel as he grabbed his wife and daughter, and yelled:

"Hey, what's your name?''

"Jamelle,'' the student replied.

"Right," the alum grinned with knowing satisfaction. "Good luck tomorrow against Illinois.''
Jamelle Cornley shrugged and smiled.

If four years in Happy Valley has done anything, it has inured to the anonymity of Penn State men's basketball. Playing literally in the shadows of the nearly 110,000-seat beast that is Beaver Stadium, the Nittany Lions who play hoops have long suffered as second-class citizens.

While powerhouse football and basketball happily coexist on other campuses -- Texas, Oklahoma, Florida to name a few -- State College is all about gridiron gluttony. The tiny town swells to the third-largest metropolis in the state on home football weekends, with fans happily reserving $300-a-night hotel rooms a year in advance.

Even in the lean years, from 2000 to 2004, when the Lions suffered four losing seasons in five years and people called for the head of long-deified Joe Paterno, the fans still came. Beaver Stadium's average attendance for the season dipped below capacity in 2003 and 2004 when Penn State was 3-9 and 4-7, respectively. Of course, below capacity meant 105,629 and 103,111 on average, off the sellout mark of 107,282.

In four years, Cornley has never played in front of a home sellout crowd.

"If we could just get a quarter of what they have -- wow," the forward said, nodding to the stadium in the distance.

It would seem easy enough: major university, big-time conference, captive audience, deep-pocketed and rabidly loyal alums. Yet the Lions haven't finished with a winning season since 2001 and have been to the NCAA tournament just twice in the past 17 years.

Were it not for the chronic futility of Northwestern hoops, Penn State would own the Big Ten basement.

"If I had the answer, we would have fixed it by now," athletic director Tim Curley said. "I can't pinpoint why it hasn't happened. We have all the pieces to be successful. I think we're close -- very, very close.''

But building a basketball program alongside one as firmly entrenched as Penn State football only makes the job more difficult. It's not just about diagramming a decent offense.

It's about changing a culture, about convincing outsiders and even insiders that Penn State isn't just a football school.

It's a task that on many days seems almost Sisyphusian.

In the midst of a football tailgate, a fan asked what brought to town. Told it was for a basketball story, the fan (a card-carrying alum) scrunched up his face and asked, "Why?"
Three years ago, a professor giddily accosted Cornley outside of the student center. It was the Monday after a big football game and the professor practically shouted in Cornley's face.

"He said, 'I saw that play you made when you ran across the field. I told my son you're my new favorite player. How's the knee?'' Cornley remembered. "I kept thinking, 'Who does he think I am?' That night I got an e-mail. He apologized to me. He thought I was Jerome Hayes.

"Sure, it bothers me,'' he continued. "Everyone wants their own identity.''

If Beaver Stadium is the house that Joe built, the Lasch Building is the coach's ivory tower.
It is a building in homage to a team that owns a campus, a football-only complex that includes a practice field, a 13,000-square-foot weight room, a video room sweeter than your neighborhood Cineplex, a players' lounge complete with leather sofas and pool tables and, of course, a spacious office for the man whose craggy face long has personified the university.

When Ed DeChellis, an alum and former assistant, returned to Penn State as head basketball coach five years ago, he and his coaches shared a 1,600-square-foot space tucked in a nondescript corner of the Bryce Jordan Center. There were no pictures or artwork telling you that this was the basketball section of the building, just prison-cell-cinderblock white walls leading to a space just down the hall from the softball team.

With no designated spaces, coaches stuffed envelopes in the hallway and broke down film in a space akin to a small walk-in closet. Without a video room or player lounge, the team watched film in the locker room.

The team had its own private practice court, a bright and airy space that looked like it could have been at the local Y. Neither the floor nor the walls were painted with Penn State logos.
The whole thing screamed afterthought.

"You take them over to see Coach [Paterno] and it was, 'Wow,'" said DeChellis, who frequently bypassed his own office space when giving recruits campus tours. "Then you brought kids here and it cemented the image you knew the other teams were giving kids -- 'Don't go to Penn State. They don't care about basketball.' That's exactly how it looked."

DeChellis didn't fault the administration. It wasn't that no one cared. It's simply that before him, no one asked. There was no alumni champion of college basketball arguing that the team needed upgrades, no one on the previous coaching staffs begging for renovations in a building built only in 1996.

Heck, the team didn't even have a director of basketball operations or video coordinator on staff.
But to DeChellis, the insufficient facilities only compounded what was already an uphill battle.
Of the Big 10 schools, five have national championship trophies in their cases. Indiana lays claim to eight Final Four appearances, Michigan State six.

Tradition for Nittany Lions basketball begins with its 1954 Final Four appearance, blips through two quick tourney appearances in 1955 and 1965, and endures 26 lean years until a stunning first-round upset of UCLA in 1991, followed by a crash-and-burn first-round loss as a No. 5 seed in 1996, and finally the unexpected Sweet 16 finish in 2001.

So when you can't counter tradition with the excesses of modernity, what can you offer? The answer at least partially explains the preponderance of lean years.

"It sends a message about the commitment to the program," Curley said. "It's the visual that recruits get to see that shows you're committed and willing to stay up with the changing times, that you're committed to giving your coaches and student-athletes everything they need to maximize themselves and their experience."

Three years ago, Penn State redid the locker room, replacing the cheesy, pressed-wood lockers with cherry wood, converting an unused space into a lounge complete with flat-screen TVs, and carving a video room in what was previously a visiting locker room.

And the last weekend in September, DeChellis and his staff moved into 4,000 square feet of office spaces that include a kitchenette, mailing/copying/faxing center, private conference room and separate area to host recruits.

The office space anchors what is now a Penn State basketball wing (the women's team has the same space in the building).

DeChellis believes the upgrades have helped the Lions lure players who otherwise wouldn't have visited, let alone committed. Sophomore point guard Talor Battle was ranked among the top 100 recruits coming out of high school, and Louisville native Jeff Brooks was a Mr. Basketball finalist in Kentucky as well as another top-100 player.

"People used to ask me, 'What have you been doing?'" DeChellis said. "This is what I've been doing. I finally feel like we're on an even playing field.''

It's 11:30 a.m. on the Saturday of the Illinois game. Kickoff is still eight-plus hours away.
All around Beaver Stadium is bedlam. Fans dressed in everything from Penn State Hawaiian shirts to Joe Paterno masks (which are as frightening as they sound) teeter on the edge of sobriety in the parking lots on the East end of campus.

A few wander inside the All-Sports Museum attached to the stadium, where DeChellis is seated at a table for a radio chat. No one gives more than a passing glance toward him.

Five hours later, it's much the same inside the Jordan Center when the team plays a pickup game/scrimmage before TailGreat, the pregame tradition featuring the Penn State Blue Band and cheerleaders.

There are people in the stands, but outside of a pair of rowdy students in goofy wigs who hoot and holler for big dunks, no one makes much noise. Some read the newspaper while others wander to the end-line area to play putting contests for prizes.

The average age is well on the high side of 40, with few young alums or students choosing to abandon their tailgates.

It would be insulting were it not for the cold reality of the situation: For there to be juice, there needs to be something to get juiced about, and the Lions simply haven't supplied it.

Penn State finished 15-16 last season and 7-11 in the Big Ten, its best conference finish in eight years despite losing its best player, Geary Claxton, to a torn ACL.

But aside from an NIT run and 15-15 finish in 2006, there hasn't been much to celebrate. In 2007, the Lions lost 14 of their final 15; in 2005, their last 12. The surprise Sweet 16 run of 2001 was followed up by consecutive 7-21 seasons.

"I used to ask myself, 'Would I come? Would I give up my night and come to watch a team lose by 30?' That's no fun," Cornley said.

Cornley knew what he was getting into when he signed with Penn State. He grew up in Columbus, Ohio, another town that you might say has a decent college football following.
He knew his team would be the understudy to a high-voltage star and that he'd swallow a lot of pride before ever getting the chance to puff out his chest.

"I ask recruits all the time, 'Do you have the mental toughness for this?'" Cornley said. "There's always the football issue. You've got guys on that team, not many but some, that walk around with the [Superman] 'S' on the chest and they don't even play. But people don't care. They're football players."

So why bother? Why did Cornley take all of this on?

He came, in part, because the Lions wanted him -- many teams weren't willing to take a flyer on a 6-foot-5 undersized power forward -- but more because he wanted to change things.
Cornley wanted to be the guy who turned the team around, who made Penn State basketball resonate as loudly as Penn State football.

There are days, of course, when he feels like he's pounding his head against a ceiling that's as hard as the steel that makes up Beaver Stadium.

But at the end of each day is the tantalizing dream that keeps him going. Cornley sees himself in the waning seconds of the Big Ten tournament championship as the final clocks tick off and Penn State begins to celebrate. The cameras find him on the court crying tears of joy.

A year later, Cornley is playing professionally somewhere. It's Selection Sunday, and once again Penn State's name is on the screen. The Lions are no longer a one-hit wonder.

They're rolling, rolling out irrelevance and squeezing into the spotlight.

"I'm getting goose bumps thinking about it," Cornley grinned. "Sure, it all can be frustrating. We get up at 6 a.m. We practice just as hard. We work just as hard. You fight through injuries and people say, 'Penn State is a football school.' But we're the only ones who can change that.

"I think we're close. Very close."

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Petruzelli cuts through Slice in less than a round

For the first time in his professional mixed martial arts career, heavyweight Kimbo Slice tasted defeat. The loss, however, did not come against the man he was originally scheduled to face.

Ken Shamrock was unable to fight due to a cut over his left eye sustained during a workout earlier in the day. When Shamrock was deemed unfit to fight, Seth Petruzelli stepped in to replace him.

The decision turned out to be the right one for Petruzelli, who needed just 14 seconds to put a blemish on Slice's record. Petruzelli was scheduled to fight light heavyweight Aaron Rosa, but quickly accepted the shot at Slice.

"It was an opportunity to step up," Petruzelli said. "This is something I wanted all my life."
Tipping the scale Thursday at 205½, Petruzelli was outweighed by more than 19 pounds. The weight difference would not come into play.

Petruzelli looked comfortable standing with the hard-hitting Slice. He did not run away and was able to land a right hand that clipped Slice on the jaw.

The punch was hard enough to stun Slice, who stumbled forward and fell to his knees. Once on the ground, Petruzelli delivered several lefts and rights that caught a defenseless Slice.

Clearly hurt, Slice was wide open. His inability to stop the onslaught gave referee Troy Waugh no choice but to step in and call the fight off.

The sellout crowd of 9,414 mostly Slice supporters was stunned. But the enormity of the event had the majority of fans cheering.

Slice took the loss in stride.

"It's all good," said Slice, who fell to 3-1. "It was unexpected, but it's all good."

The loss likely ends any chance of a bout between Slice and Brett Rogers. The men exchanged harsh words in May during an EliteXC card in Newark, N.J.

While Slice looks to rebound and continue to improve, more opportunities are sure to open up for Petruzelli.

With the win Petruzelli improved to 10-4. More importantly, he instantly becomes a well-known fighter.

Slice was prepared to face Shamrock. There was a lot of bad blood between the two and each man vowed to punish the other last night at BankAtlantic Center.

But their battle will have to wait. Shamrock suffered a cut over his left eye during a practice session yesterday afternoon. Hours before the bout the Florida State Athletic Commission determined that Shamrock was unfit to fight.

"It appears that he was warming up as he stated, rolling over and received a head butt, which resulted in a laceration over his eye," Dr. Allan Fields of the Florida State Athletic Commission. "He received six sutures in the eyebrow.

"He explained that he wanted to fight; however, for his safety, we have rules. Anyone with a recent laceration cannot go participate in a fight."

The hostility between Slice and Shamrock reached the boiling point during Thursday's weigh-in. While posing for the traditional stare down, Slice turned his back to Shamrock.

Angered by the gesture, Shamrock shoved Slice and the fighters nearly came to blows. All that prevented a full-scale brawl was the quick action of each fighter's entourage, many of whom jumped between the two powerful men.

"He turned his back to me at the weigh-in," Shamrock said. "That's disrespectful. I hope they put this fight together again. He deserves to get a beating and I want to give it to him."

With Shamrock unable to perform, Petruzelli stepped in and accepted to fight on short notice. He made the most of it.