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Michigan State now feels Penn State's pain

November 19, 2005|By TIM MARTIN

EAST LANSING, Mich. - A year ago, Michigan State coach John L. Smith was upset that disgruntled fans were suggesting Penn State legend Joe Paterno should step aside.

Now Smith is the one facing fan criticism as Paterno's resurgent Nittany Lions head into Spartan Stadium for today's traditional Big Ten finale.

After a 4-0 start raised fans' expectations, Michigan State (5-5, 2-5 Big Ten) has lost five of its last six games. The Spartans need a win to become eligible for a bowl.

Meanwhile, Paterno and No. 5 Penn State (9-1, 6-1 Big Ten) have rebounded from two consecutive losing seasons and would clinch at least a share of the Big Ten title with a victory.

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Smith, in his third season in East Lansing, fully expects to be back next year. He says the heat is no more intense than it was when he took over the program in December 2002.

"Same as it was the first day I came in," said Smith, noting that Internet chat calling for his dismissal started before he ever coached a game for Michigan State.

Smith has a 128-77 record in a 17-year career that includes successful rebuilding jobs at Louisville, Utah State and Idaho. He is 18-17 at Michigan State halfway through a six-year contract.

Paterno - who has a 352-117-3 record in his 40-year career - defended Smith and ripped his critics this week.

"I'd tell them to shut up. If John L. wants to ask me, I'd tell him to tell them to all shut up," Paterno said. "You've got people who don't quite understand what's going on.

"John L.'s a heckuva football coach. I look at the things he's done and the way his kids play. I think he'll be fine."

Not long ago, it was Paterno's future that was debated by fans and media. Back-to-back records of 3-9 in 2003 and 4-7 last year had some in Happy Valley calling for Paterno, 78, to resign.

Penn State whipped Michigan State in its finale last season, 37-13. Smith said this week it was clear to him then that Paterno and Penn State would come roaring back this season.

"I think it speaks volumes to his commitment and his willingness to say, 'This is what we do, and we're going to be fine,"' Smith said of Paterno's approach during the past few seasons. "'Continue to work on it, and things will get better.' And that's what they've done."

AP poll voters weren't convinced Penn State would turn it around, however. The Nittany Lions didn't crack the Top 25 until early October.

Now they would earn their second Big Ten title and first since 1994 with a win Saturday. They also would clinch the conference's Bowl Championship Series berth and would have an outside shot at playing for the national title, depending on what unfolds in other conferences over the next few weeks.

But Penn State players and coaches say they aren't looking that far ahead. Michigan State is a potential spoiler, going 9-1 against Top 10 teams since 1997 - a string that started with a 49-14 victory over a Penn State team that was ranked fourth at the time.

Nittany Lion linebacker Paul Posluszny said he is surprised at the Spartans' struggles.

"They are an extremely talented team," he said. "But on any given day, anyone can beat anyone in our conference."

The Nittany Lion defense has allowed 297.1 yards per game, 11th-best in the nation and second in the conference. Posluszny is one of the nation's best defensive players, racking up 106 tackles so far this season.

Michigan State's offense, keyed by quarterback Drew Stanton, ranks fifth in the nation and first in the Big Ten, averaging 506.9 yards per game. Stanton needs one more touchdown pass to eclipse the school mark of 21 he shares with Jeff Smoker. But the Spartans' offensive production has dropped the past few weeks.

Defensively, Michigan State has struggled much of the season. The Spartans will be challenged by Penn State quarterback Michael Robinson, who has hurt opponents all season both running and passing the football.

Robinson has completed 52 percent of his passes for 1,992 yards with 15 TDs and nine interceptions. He has rushed for 695 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Tony Hunt leads the Nittany Lion ground game with 958 yards and five TDs on 154 carries.

Michigan State leads the all-time series with Penn State, 11-10-1.

Paterno is 9-4 against the Spartans, including a 1-1 mark against Smith.

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