STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – All week long, Penn State fans couldn't stop chattering leading up to the Nittany Lions' Rose Bowl-clinching 49-18 rout of Michigan State.
And almost none of the discussions involved the game itself.
Everywhere you turned around Happy Valley, you'd hear one more rumor about Penn State coach Joe Paterno's future, even though it would go against everything Paterno believes to take the spotlight away from his players on Senior Day.
There were the reports that Paterno's family had acquired more tickets than usual just in case this marked the final home game of his career. Penn State's band supposedly wasn't going to play its scheduled halftime show, apparently so Paterno could address the fans. And didn't Paterno seem particularly nostalgic during his call-in radio show this week?
"We all knew the rumors were a bunch of baloney," said Paterno's son, Penn State quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno. "People are calling me and saying, 'I hear your whole family's going to be there.' Yeah. Three of us live in town, another one's in Harrisburg and another lives in Philly. It's not like someone's flying in from Fiji."
Anyone assuming they'd witness any history-making event Saturday beyond Penn State earning its second Rose Bowl bid was bound for disappointment. The only surprise was the lack of surprise.
"I'm planning to come back here," said Paterno, who turns 82 next month. "I've never planned otherwise."
PENN STATE 49, MICHIGAN 18
Daryll Clark threw four touchdown passes and ran for a fifth score as host Penn State breezed to a victory over Michigan State. Clark and backup quarterback Pat Devlin combined for 419 passing yards to set a team single-game record. The victory allowed Penn State to clinch its first Rose Bowl appearance since the 1994 season.
STAR OFFENSIVE PLAYER
Two weeks ago, Clark apologized to "the whole Penn State nation" after going 9-of-23 for 86 yards and an interception in a 24-23 loss to Iowa that put a huge dent in the Nittany Lions' national-title hopes. He spent Saturday making amends. Clark went 16-of-26 and threw for a career-high 341 yards while accounting for five touchdowns.
Penn State opened its second series of the game with a 49-yard pass from Clark to Jordan Norwood that gave the Nittany Lions first-and-goal at Michigan State's 10. That play set up Penn State's first touchdown and gave Clark a necessary confidence boost as he bounced back from a late-season slump.
There were no major injuries of note.
With temperatures in the 20s and snow in the air, Penn State's players at least had the luxury of heaters on their sideline. "I told them, 'If I'm on the sideline, we don't have the heaters,' '' said Penn State coach Joe Paterno, who coached from the press box because of an ailing hip. "I can't go upstairs in a nice warm booth and tell you guys to freeze your butt off." … Penn State's victory was the 800th in school history. Other schools with at least 800 wins are Michigan (872), Notre Dame (830), Texas (830), Nebraska (815) and Ohio State (808). … This marks the 14th season in Paterno's tenure that Penn State has won at least 11 games. … Paterno's record is 383-126-3. … Ringer's 42 yards represented a season low. Ringer was held 98.7 yards below his average. … Penn State has won 27 of its past 29 games at Beaver Stadium. Penn State is 236-57 at Beaver Stadium.
Why shouldn't he come back?
Penn State breezed to its second Big Ten title in four seasons with the type of performance that showed just why the winningest coach in major-college football history ought to keep working as long as he wants.
Even with an ailing hip forcing Paterno into the press box for the majority of the season, Penn State (11-1) is one point away from an undefeated season. If Iowa's Daniel Murray had missed that 31-yard field goal in the final seconds of the Hawkeyes' 24-23 upset of Penn State two weeks ago, the Nittany Lions almost certainly would be one victory away from a national title
"He could easily just give in and say maybe this is the last year," Penn State quarterback Daryll Clark said. "He's been through so much. A broken knee. Broken ribs. A messed-up hip. But he continues to come out and coach with that same intensity each and every day."
Clark noted how Paterno reminded him this week not to get down on himself or try to do too much after a couple of so-so performances against Iowa and Indiana. He responded by throwing for 341 yards and accounting for five touchdowns against Michigan State.
He wasn't the only star.
Deon Butler caught three touchdowns passes, while Jordan Norwood had five receptions for 127 yards. Penn State's defense held All-America candidate Javon Ringer to 42 yards on 17 carries in a performance that showed why longtime defensive coordinator Tom Bradley eventually ought to succeed Paterno.
That day shouldn't come anytime soon, though it's easy to understand the speculation about Paterno's future.
He walked with a cane to Saturday's postgame news conference and surgery is scheduled this week. Penn State's drive toward a Big Ten title gave Paterno a chance to go out on top. Paterno's lack of a contract beyond the end of the season produced even more talk that he might not return in 2009.
Those factors often have overshadowed Penn State's success on the field.
Penn State endured four losing seasons in a five-year span from 2000-04, but the Nittany Lions have won 80 percent of their games since the start of the 2005 season. USC, Texas, Boise State, Ohio State, West Virginia, LSU and Florida are the only schools with better winning percentages during that span.
The turnaround started with the arrival of the group that now makes up Penn State's senior class. No wonder Paterno broke down during a team meeting Friday while discussing how much the senior class – and the team as a whole – had meant to him.
"Coach was pretty emotional," Penn State linebacker Tyrell Sales said. "When you see somebody like him that's been around so long, who's seen it all, the highs and the lows – for him to show his emotion, it's really heartfelt.
"As a group, it's pretty emotional for us as well. I saw myself looking around and guys were a little red in the eyes. That's how much we mean to him and how much this whole program means to all of us."
Those types of moments are what keep Paterno coming back. They're also what brought him here in the first place, as he follows the advice he received from his father after breaking the news of his plans to pursue a coaching career.
"He said, 'For God's sake, try to have an impact on that team besides teaching a bunch of people how to knock each other's brains out,' " Paterno said. "I look back and I think I've made an impact on this place, and I feel good about that."
Paterno deserves the chance to continue making an impact as long as he wants.