Football Writers Association of America 2002 BEST WRITING CONTEST
COLUMN | ENTERPRISE | FEATURE | GAME | LOOSE DEADLINE

FIRST PLACE: LOOSE DEADLINE
Malcolm Moran, USA Today

EVANSTON, Ill. The triumphant sprint was right out of the old days in Happy Valley, when Beaver Stadium was about half its present size, Joe Paterno was a young head coach and Penn State's Grand Experiment championship football without academic compromise was in its early stages.

Paterno exited Northwestern's Ryan Field late Saturday afternoon with his 323rd victory, tying Bear Bryant's major college record, and with long, purposeful strides, his right fist pumping toward the darkened sky. The accomplishment would be recorded as his, but its significance had more to do with a rattled team than a historymaking coach. Maybe Paterno didn't exit on the shoulders of his players because the rewards from his demands have been minimal. Or maybe the Nittany Lions just couldn't catch their 74-year-old coach.

Malcolm Moran
USA Today
Age: 48
College: Fordham
Background: Moran has covered college sports at USA Today since 2000. Before that he spent more than 19 years at The New York Times. And before that he spent four years at Newsday, long enough ago that the Friday night receptions at Penn State took place at the head coach's home. He also has covered Notre Dame for the Chicago Tribune.

At long last in their emotionally punishing season, the Lions pushed Paterno into a long-anticipated tie with Bryant. Penn State's cathartic comeback, its 38-35 victory vs. Northwestern that overcame five Wildcats leads, carried an importance to the coach that has nothing to do with record books a chance for a previously winless team to enjoy some essential positive reinforcement.

Penn State (1-4) never had lost the first four games of a season, but for an instant that was pushed aside. Redshirt freshman quarterback Zack Mills, who replaced the injured Matt Senneca with 1:39 to play, led a 69-yard drive that ended with a 4-yard touchdown pass to Eric McCoo with 22 seconds left.

"I was pretty much speechless after the game," Mills said. "I was in shock."

Senneca scored two 1-yard touchdowns and produced career highs in completions (20), attempts (39) and yards (234). But he suffered a mild concussion as the result of a blindside hit by Napoleon Harris. The Lions, who had scored 31 points and gained 163 rushing yards in their first four games, picked up 213 of their 501 total yards on the ground with the use of a new power-I formation.

"We have a running game again," said Larry Johnson, who rushed for 68 yards before spraining his right ankle.

Actually, it was an old formation, something from the days before Paterno's lifesize cardboard likeness started popping up in storefront windows along College Avenue in State College, before Joe became JoePa. Every now and then, some fact captures the fullness of Paterno's career better than any numbers can. The return to the power-I was the latest example.

"We've done it before," Paterno said.

Before? Northwestern's Randy Walker, a head coach for 12 college seasons and an assistant for 13 before that, was a high school junior in Troy, Ohio, when Penn State used the strategy to eliminate a funk.

"We had done that years and years ago, back in 1970," Paterno said. "We were 1-3. Wisconsin had beaten us. I didn't like the quarterbacks. Went back home. Took a kid by the name of Hufnagel, and we put the power-I in and won 17 straight with it, with him at quarterback. Because he hadn't played any quarterback, it was simple to get a couple of things in. He didn't have to have a lot of reads. A good play-action pass game.

"So a couple of days off and I got fooling around trying to figure out something, and I remembered that."

The record was 1-2 after the loss at Wisconsin, but after splitting the next two games, the Lions won 26 of the next 28. John Hufnagel eventually became an All- America quarterback in 1972 and led the Lions to a Cotton Bowl victory against Texas and a final No. 5 ranking in 1971.

Penn State is a long way from the list of ranked teams or the shorter list of championship dreamers.

When the school's surprising commitment to join the Big Ten inspired speculation that Northwestern would be pushed out nearly a decade ago, it would have been difficult to imagine that any Paterno team would celebrate a victory against the Wildcats.

Eventually, that reality leads to a complex discussion for another day. When the right rear wheels of Penn State's charter flight became stuck in mud and soft dirt just off a taxi way Saturday night at Midway Airport, the Lions were forced into an improvised overnight stay at four nearby hotels. If Penn State had been 0-5 when the airplane was replaced Sunday morning, the stuck-in-the- mud scenario would have been an unavoidable metaphor for a season of lost hope.

But not now. There may have been more glorious exits, such as the rides he earned after his Lions secured national championships with wins against Georgia and Herschel Walker in the 1983 Sugar Bowl and Miami (Fla.) and Vinny Testaverde in the 1987 Fiesta Bowl. But the context of Saturday's sprint elevated the moment to the short list of the 36-season Paterno era. After the details were dissected, there was one imperfection to address.

"Joe, why didn't anybody carry you off?"

Paterno thought for a moment.

"Good thing they didn't," he said, and chuckled.

"They were having too good a time celebrating," the coach said quietly, and then he reiterated his point. "This is a good squad. There are some good athletes on this football team. I've been telling you guys I think we're pretty good. We're not there yet. But they needed something like this."

To reinforce his conviction, Paterno rapped his knuckles quickly taptaptaptaptaptap against the table top before him. The coach's voice was soft, but his staccato delivery offered evidence that inside, he hadn't stopped sprinting.

"I think we can really make great strides from this," Paterno went on. "I think ..."

"Coach, you want us to carry you off?"

The lighthearted question had been asked by a rather heavyset reporter. The coach's response was immediate.

"I'm sure not going to carry you," Paterno replied, and loud laughter filled the room. You can take the boy out of Brooklyn ...

The sentimentality would have to come from elsewhere.

It was only a matter of moments before it would.

For there in dim light beneath the stands of Ryan Field, as Bear Bryant's equal rode on a golf cart past the lingering fans, many in Northwestern purple, he slapped their outstretched hands as he passed through their echoing applause.

Comment from the judge, Mickey Spagnola: Nicely wrapped package of Paterno finally tying Bryant's mark, setting the scene, providing background, some history, some game-related matter and really revealing the core of the old head coach.

Second place: Brian Landman, St. Petersburg Times
Third place: Eric Hansen, South Bend Tribune
Honorable mention: Ron Musselman, Toledo Blade; John Helsley, The Daily Oklahoman; Charles Dye, The Daily News, Longview, Wash.