Paterno shifts Penn State’s focus to No. 4 Michigan

Penn State coach Joe Paterno enters the stadium before the start of a football game against Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., Sept. 9. Veteran coach Paterno faced Northwestern and coach Pat Fitzgerald Sept. 30, in State College, Pa. The Associated Press

Penn State coach Joe Paterno enters the stadium before the start of a football game against Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., Sept. 9. Veteran coach Paterno faced Northwestern and coach Pat Fitzgerald Sept. 30, in State College, Pa. The Associated Press

By The Associated Press

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Picture Joe Paterno pacing the Michigan Stadium sidelines wearing a maize-and-blue jacket as coach of the Wolverines.

It could have happened decades ago. Paterno said he was offered the Michigan job before Bo Schembechler was hired in 1968 and had a successful 21-year run in Ann Arbor.

Things worked out pretty well at Penn State for JoePa, too. Now, he’s got the tough task of preparing the Nittany Lions for Saturday’s prime-time showdown against the fourth-ranked Wolverines (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten) and their run-stuffing defense.

“It’s the scheme, speed and intensity that they are playing with,” said Paterno, in his 41st year coaching Penn State. “They are obviously one of the best defensive teams that we’ve seen.”

And to think that he could have coached the Wolverines at one point.

Paterno said he had told Donald Canham, who in 1968 had begun his 20-year run as Michigan athletic director, “The only place I would think about leaving Penn State for on the college level might be Michigan.”

“I’ve always been impressed just with the caliber of people,” he said Tuesday. “I thought their program was the kind of program we’d like to have here.”

Instead, he’ll get another chance to coach against them Saturday night in Michigan’s first visit to Beaver Stadium since 2001. Home or away, the Nittany Lions (4-2, 2-1) haven’t been too successful lately, losing seven straight to the Wolverines. Penn State’s last win over Michigan came Nov. 16, 1996, a 29-17 win at The Big House.

The teams didn’t play in 2003-04 because of the Big Ten’s rotating schedule, but the Lions’ losing streak resumed last season when Michigan escaped with a 27-25 win in Ann Arbor after Chad Henne threw a 10-yard TD pass to Mario Manningham with no time left. Penn State’s bid for an undefeated season was spoiled.

Paterno said he isn’t harboring any bitterness about the way his team lost.

“That’s all overblown, you haven’t got time to go back and moan,” Paterno said. “What do you want me to do? Tie (Michigan coach) Lloyd Carr’s hands behind his back … and point at the clock.”

The “get-over-it” message was espoused by defensive tackle Jay Alford.

“It doesn’t really bother me,” Alford said. “Even though it did hurt a little bit last year, it was last year. We just want to come in here and play Michigan as well as we can.”

Alford and the defense will get at least one big break after Carr said Tuesday that Manningham was out following arthroscopic knee surgery. Manningham has a Big Ten-leading 527 yards and nine touchdown catches.

“I think it’s a shame. A kid that’s playing as well as he’s playing,” Paterno said. “I’d rather just line up and let’s play, and see how good we are and see whether we can a match up with a team with the caliber of Michigan.”

It’s the third top-five opponent for Penn State this season, following losses last month at then-No. 4 Notre Dame and at top-ranked Ohio State. With Penn State fans hoping their team avenges last year’s loss to Michigan, the atmosphere Saturday night at Beaver Stadium could be electric, similar to what Penn State experienced when they played the Buckeyes in Columbus.

“People keep talking to me ‘Why do you still coach?”‘ Paterno said. “Well you know, those are the kind of days that you say ‘Boy am I going to miss those when I’m home cutting grass.”‘