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Paterno challenge looks tough

Published Oct. 12, 2005

Driving the overloaded Pennsylvania Turnpike, embraced by the autumn-colored Poconos and peppered by a merciless Friday rain, I suddenly felt so removed from the Miami-Florida State college football extravaganza of just a week ago.

Scenes, like leaves, change fast.

Miami's outrageously successful Hurricanes, those Seminole heartbreakers, have moved north to test their magic in today's game of the year. Before a hostile Penn State gallery of 95,000, the 'Canes will engage one of their more memorable tormentors.

Seventh-ranked Penn State (5-0) has been fattening up on thin 1992 competition, beating no enemy loftier than Rutgers. Beginning today, America seriously assesses the viability of these Nittany Lions to win coach Joe Paterno a third national championship.

But some things are clear . . .

Here in Happy Valley, there's a new level of speed in those drab-and-blue old Penn State uniforms, and the lush hills of central Pennsylvania are loudly echoing with the chant, "We want Miami!"

Richie Anderson is running for 5.6 yards per try, and showing more quickness than noted old Lions named Franco Harris, Curt Warner and D.J. Dozier. Wide receivers O.J. McDuffie and Troy Drayton have a big-blur gait more associated with the 'Canes than with Penn State.

Big trouble for Miami?

Maybe, but 'Canes don't worry.

"Nobody's going to beat us," 250-pound Miami defensive end Darren Krein said. "When our offense isn't hot, our defense kills. Check the record. If an opponent is real tough, maybe it'll be close, but nobody wins against the 'Canes. Ask poor Florida State. Every year, the Seminoles' dream of being No. 1 turns to dust against us."

Last week: UM 19, FSU 16.

Despite a new brand of Penn State team speed, the Lions are concerned about keeping up with Miami, especially a dominating 'Canes defense. When the UM hotshots romp into Beaver Stadium, second-largest in the country next to Michigan's 106,000 capacity, they will find unusually long grass that was soaked by Friday's rain. Not exactly a fast track.

Miami (4-0) is renowned not only for its athletic talent but for staying quick, cocky and hungry. Four seasons in nine (1983, '87, '89, '91), the 'Canes have been national champs. This morning, they're No. 2 behind Washington, but Miami knows that back-to-back beatings of top-10ers FSU and Penn State almost surely would vault the 'Canes to No. 1.

Beyond today, UM has a run of boringly easy assignments against TCU, Virginia Tech, West Virginia and Temple. Next challenge of any stature comes Nov. 21 at Syracuse. If the 'Canes earn No. 1 this weekend, they could be there for a long time.

"What about us?" asks Pete Greene, a Boston dentist with a Penn State diploma and a deep dislike for UM. "Our combination of academic and football quality is something Miami will never know. I would drive to the moon to see us bloody Hurricane noses. Need we remind the big mouths from Miami about Jan. 2, 1987?"

Remember, I said memorable tormentors . . .

Vinny Testaverde recalls it most painfully, but to any card-carrying 'Cane, despite all the 1983-'92 Miami conquests, 1/2/87 is a date that will live in infamy.

It was the Fiesta Bowl, a national championship matchup between the 'Canes and Penn State. Testaverde was defensed out of his 22-year-old mind. In his final 'Canes game before hiring on with the Tampa Bay Bucs, Vinny suffered five interceptions and four sacks in a 14-10 loss.

UM remembers; so does Penn State.

"Sure, this one's also big," the 63-year-old Paterno said about today, "but so easily the world can forget that football should not get so out of perspective that it becomes the every-hour passion of athletes or people who watch them play."

Paterno is a man of multilevel style. His record (245-62-3) makes this plain-looking Joe the winningest major college coach beyond Bear Bryant, Amos Alonzo Stagg and Pop Warner. But in the total measure, it is Paterno's penchant for academic/human development of his pupils that hoists him above every rival.

Paterno is quite a man, and quite a coach, and today is _ as always _ quite a challenge for a Miami bunch that has won so heavily that some 'Canes see themselves as unbeatable.