|Written by Jeff Falk|
| Mike Gross has seen just about everything in his ten years of covering the Penn State football program. And what he has taken from the experience is that no two season are exactly alike, and that each one takes on its own distinct personality. The 2010 campaign has certainly been no exception to that rule. Despite a modest start due mostly to some remodeling, the Nittany Lions have been able to piece together a solid year. “I’m not saying it’s been a great year,” said Gross, a lifelong resident of Lebanon County. “I’d say a B-minus. They’ve gotten a little better as the year has gone on. I don’t know if they were underachieving (at the beginning of the season) as much as they’ve improved.”
Gross, the assistant sports editor of the Lancaster Sunday News, has missed just a couple of games during his last decade of writing eloquently about PSU football for Lancaster Newspapers. A graduate of Cedar Crest High School, Gross also toiled as a sportswriter for the Lebanon Daily News in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
“It is by far my favorite thing to do,” said Gross of his handling of the Penn State beat. “I like it a lot. I like the road trips. I like the travel. I go on six or seven road trips a year.
“Joe (Paterno) makes it fun because he’s such a piece of work,” Gross added. “It’ll be less interesting when he’s not there. Plus the fact that readers are so interest in it makes it rewarding. You know stuff is getting read.”
What Penn State gave its fans during the 2010 regular season was a mixed bag.
On the heels of Saturday’s 28-22 home loss to Michigan State, the Nittany Lions finished their regular year 7-5 overall and 4-4 in the Big Ten Conference. Penn State appears headed to a Jan. 1 bowl – possibly either the Gator or Outback.
But during the year, Penn State endured four 20-plus-point losses – at Alabama, at Iowa, vs. Illinois and at Ohio State. That’s the first time that’s happened in the Paterno era.
“They weren’t going to win at Alabama in Week Two,” said Gross. “But they actually played decently in that game. They moved the ball. They competed. They played better in that game than they did against Iowa. Iowa just beat them up.
“The wins over Michigan and Northwestern were two games that were not automatic,” continued Gross. “And they won. At Ohio State, they played well for a half.”
Penn State’s early-season struggles can be directly traced to inexperience caused by heavy graduation losses. But the Lions have flourished with the emergence of quarterback Matt McGloin, the improvement of the offensive line and the coming together of the defense.
“The season’s gone a little better, given reasonable expectations,” said Gross. “If you look at what they lost, the quarterback situation was up in the air, the offensive line was up in the air. They lost all three linebackers who are all in the NFL. And when you look at their schedule.”
“It was supposed to be a rebuilding year,” Gross continued. “But they found a quarterback. They found two receivers. They have some starters returning, so I think they’re going to be pretty good next year.”
Gross is very well acquainted with the expectations of the Penn State faithful – some of which are realistic and some of which are not.
“There’s a certain segment of the public that believes if you’re really good you don’t rebuild, you reload,” said Gross. “But if you look at that, it’s not true. Nobody’s good every year. It’s more cyclical than most people think.
“I think their offensive line has gotten better,” Gross added. “Another part of it is Matt McGloin. I think he’s absolutely lit a fire under them. Some of that is leadership stuff. McGloin is a little bit cocky. McGloin has grown. When he gets into the game, I think he plays with a little more confidence (than former starter Robert Gulden). He’s a little more fearless. I think Gulden does better in practice, in ways quarterback talent is more conventionally measured.”
But of course what makes Penn State football Penn State football is Paterno. Just last week the 83-year-old legend announced he would return to coach the team in 2011.
“Rumors fly all the time,” said Gross. “I think there’s a lot of people close to the situation who believe that next year, or the next year, will be his last. I don’t know that. And I’m not sure Joe knows that.”
But the question of whether Paterno’s age has rendered him ineffective or incompetent as a coach still lingers.
“I think more than ever, it’s a fair question,” said Gross. “Sometimes it’s like: ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ Part of it is hearing. There are also some times when you really wonder how coherent he is, how perceptive he is.
“It used to be, Joe’s the CEO, he’s delegating authority and it’s working,” Gross continued. “Now it’s getting harder to make that argument. He doesn’t travel to recruit any more. One thing he always said was he didn’t like to travel because he was always getting mobbed, like he’s a rock star. But I think travel is difficult for him right now.
“From 1999 to 2004, they (the Nittany Lions) were really bad. And I think he decided he was going to get into this CEO role. To his credit, they’ve been really good since. Now I don’t think he can do that one indispensable thing he did, which was going out and recruiting.”