Penn State ready to get Big (Ten) show started


Beset by injuries and uncertainty, Penn State takes a nervous first step into Big Ten history tomorrow. Joe Paterno gets sweaty palms just thinking about it.

"This is a much different feeling than any opener we've gone into," said Penn State's coach of the last 27 years. "We're probably more tense about this opener.

This opener -- against Minnesota at sold-out Beaver Stadium -- signals the end of Penn State's 106-year tradition as an independent program. It also marks the dawning of Big Ten football in the East. The conference may not have claimed a national championship since Ohio State won in 1968, but it still carries prestige and tradition of its own.

"I think we are doing something historic," Paterno said. "You bring this fabled conference into the East -- and we represent the East -- and there's a tremendous amount of pressure on us."

Paterno can be grateful about one thing, at least. For Penn State's inaugural game, the Big Ten has served up a Minnesota team that went 2-9 last season. This year, the Golden Gophers are expected to battle Purdue for last place in the conference.

Paterno points to Minnesota's blitzing, eight-man defensive schemes as evidence the Gophers could bring trouble to Happy Valley. In fact, he's more concerned with Penn State's lengthy list of walking wounded.

Knee injuries have ended the season for tight end Ryan Grube and wide receiver Tisen Thomas, leaving the Nittany Lions thin at both positions. Fullback Brian O'Neal missed spring practice because of back surgery, then cracked a bone in his foot in the team's first preseason scrimmage. He is listed as doubtful for Minnesota, leaving the fullback job in the hands of Jon Witman, a converted linebacker.

"I'm not crazy about going into a game with a kid who has never carried the ball in a game," Paterno said of Witman, "but that's the way it has to be. Jon will be OK after he gets his feet wet."

By comparison, Paterno has a crowd of competent, versatile runners at tailback. He plans to rotate Mike Archie, Ki-Jana Carter and Stephen Pitts -- all redshirt juniors -- at the featured back spot, and may even use one of them at fullback if necessary.

After a highly competitive preseason at quarterback, Paterno awarded the starting job to John Sacca, who started six games a year ago, ahead of Kerry Collins and Wally Richardson. Of Minnesota's pressure defense, Paterno said, "That's where an experienced quarterback is absolutely vital."

Paterno hopes to buy time for his young, inexperienced offense with a veteran defense. He has seven defensive starters returning, including tackles Lou Benfatti and Tyoka Jackson and safeties Lee Rubin and Derek Bochna.

Three years after Penn State formally was accepted into the Big Ten, Paterno is eager to dispense with the pomp and circumstance.

"I'll be glad to get in the Big Ten and play a game," he said. "It's been such a long time and [there's been] a lot of comment. We're very anxious to get the first one under our belt."

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