Bradley's first, maybe last, win
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- It seemed almost cruel to ask the question Saturday night. Penn State -- a touchdown underdog -- had just beaten Ohio State, 20-14, to become only the third Penn State team to win at The Horseshoe since 1964. Interim coach Tom Bradley, who, 10 days earlier, was dropped into an unfathomable situation unlike any in college football history, was emotional. So were his players, who had to deal with unimaginable distractions that they had nothing to do with, from the news of the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal two weeks ago to the word Friday that their former coaching icon, Joe Paterno, had been diagnosed with lung cancer.
But the question needed to be asked.
"Tom, are you concerned about your coaching future?"
The question had nothing to do with Bradley's coaching ability. He long has been a superb defensive coordinator and has done a fabulous job keeping the Penn State players together and on point since Paterno's firing Nov. 9. The Nittany Lions need only to beat Wisconsin Saturday in Madison -- a tough task, to be sure -- to win the Big Ten Conference Leaders Division and play in the league's first championship game Dec. 3 in Indianapolis. I pushed him hard for the Pitt job before it went to Todd Graham in January.
The question had everything to do with Bradley being on Paterno's staff for 33 years. Citing the ongoing criminal case involving Sandusky, who has been charged with molesting eight boys, he won't answer any questions about Sandusky, including the million-dollar one: What did you know of Sandusky's activities?
But Bradley will have to answer that question to Penn State's new president, Rodney Erickson, and acting athletic director, Dr. David Joyner, if he's interviewed for the Penn State job on a permanent basis after the season. It's widely believed Bradley has no chance because Penn State is expected to go for a clean break from the Paterno era and hire outside.
Certainly, Bradley will have to answer the question if he interviews for another head job. Right or wrong, fair or unfair, the Sandusky scandal could take him down just as it took down Paterno.
"To be honest, I'm not sure," Bradley said after considering the question for a few, long seconds. "I can't control things that aren't in my realm. All I can control is these players. We'll keep getting 'em ready to play. After that, whatever happens, happens."
Bradley added he likes to think he'll be given a fair chance to keep the Penn State job.
Regardless, this win -- his first as a head coach -- will look terrific on his resume. Penn State lost at home Nov. 12 to Nebraska, 17-14, in his first game.
"All I can say is it's been a whirlwind," Bradley said. "Since 9:53 last Wednesday night, when I got the call to take over the team, my life has changed completely ...
"But I'll say it again. It's not about me, it's about these players. They've done everything I've asked of 'em."
Bradley had broken the news of Paterno's cancer to his players -- at least those who hadn't heard via cell phone or Twitter -- during a team meeting Friday. They took the news solemnly and moved on.
Now, in the tense minutes before kickoff, Bradley reminded the players that the only Penn State teams to win at Ohio Stadium during the Paterno era were the '79 and 2008 squads. "How are you going to be remembered?" he asked them. Then, he called them up and told them, simply, "Man up! Let's go."
So the Penn State players did.
A big part of the win was Penn State's use of a wildcat package for the first time. It has been in the playbook all season, but, even though the team received poor quarterback play from Matt McGloin and Rob Bolden, Paterno refused to use it. Bradley gave it the green light. One of two wide receivers -- Curtis Drake or Bill Belton -- frequently took the direct snap. They were big factors in Penn State rushing for 239 yards.
"They weren't ready for it," Bradley said of the Ohio State defense.
The Penn State defense took care of the rest. It shut out Ohio State in the second half, forcing two fumbles. It was good enough to overcome a questionable -- OK, bad -- decision by Bradley.
Penn State, leading 20-14, had a first-and-goal at the Ohio State 2 late in the third quarter and failed to score on three plays. Instead of kicking a field goal on fourth down from the 1 and taking a nine-point lead, Bradley went for it. Running back Silas Redd was stopped for no gain.
"Normally, I probably would have kicked it," Bradley said. "But that would have been the wrong decision there. I had asked those guys to go to the wall for me. There was no way I wasn't going to the wall for them. I could have buried [Ohio State] there. I went for the jugular. I didn't even flinch."
In the end, it didn't matter.
Bradley talked about the joy in the Penn State locker room.
"You could see it in their eyes. These kids just wanted to win. Everybody had told 'em they couldn't win here. They had told 'em they couldn't win any of our last three games. I'm so happy for them. They are the story."
The next game will be the toughest. Wisconsin will be the heavy favorite to win and advance to the Big Ten title game.
Still, Bradley promised that Penn State will show up. What a wonderful story it would be if the Nittany Lions somehow won. But there's a better chance that won't happen. There's a better chance Bradley will end up with just one regular-season win as a head coach.
No, Saturday night wasn't the time to mention that to him.
First Published November 20, 2011 12:00 am