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USC VS. MICHIGAN | TODAY'S OTHER BOWLS

No stepping back at 80

Despite knee injury, Paterno wants to be on Outback Bowl sideline, coaching his 33rd postseason game for Penn State with a 15-6 record in Jan. 1 matchups

January 01, 2007|Chris Dufresne | Times Staff Writer

Penn State players visited a Tampa, Fla.-area hospital in advance of the Outback Bowl, and maybe the best news was that their coach wasn't occupying a room.

Joe Paterno, who turned 80 on Dec. 21 and is recovering from a serious knee injury suffered in a sideline accident at Wisconsin on Nov. 4, hates that he has become the story line leading into Penn State's bowl game against Tennessee (9-3).

Yet, after a review of the records and facts, Paterno easily emerges as the most fascinating character of a game featuring teams that didn't come close to winning their respective conferences.

The mere fact Paterno may be on the field for the game makes him the attraction.

"The guy has a fire inside of him that keeps burning, and I don't think it's going out any time soon," sophomore safety Anthony Scirrotto said at the Outback Bowl media day.

Paterno was injured when Wisconsin defender DeAndre Levy and Penn State tight end Andrew Quarless rolled into Paterno's legs after a third-quarter play. Surgery was performed Nov. 5 for a broken left shinbone and two torn knee ligaments. Paterno missed the Temple game -- the first Penn State home game he had not attended since 1949 -- but returned to view from the press box his Nittany Lions' season-ending victory against Michigan State on Nov. 18.

Paterno first put weight on his injured leg on Dec. 6, 10 days ahead of schedule, and he is eager to be back on his feet for his 33rd bowl game as Nittany Lions coach.

It is news any time Paterno steps on a field. He is the all-time leader in bowl wins with 21 and is 15-6 in Jan. 1 bowls. Paterno also seeks his 363rd victory, which would leave him three behind Florida State's Bobby Bowden, who picked up No. 366 with an Emerald Bowl victory over UCLA.

Paterno says he doesn't care about keeping pace with 77-year-old Bowden.

"I don't have to be the guy that wins the most games," Paterno insists.

Paterno says he still plans to coach "a couple" more years. His contract expires after the 2008 season. This season's team is 8-4 -- the losses coming to Michigan, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Notre Dame, which finished a combined 44-4.

Paterno, apparently, still has some unfinished business.

"I thoroughly enjoy what I'm doing," he says. "I am sure it is part ego, but it is fun and I am enjoying it."

The Outback Bowl will be played today at 8 a.m. PST and televised on ESPN.

A quick look at today's other bowl games.

Cotton Bowl

Auburn (10-2) vs.

Nebraska (9-4)

8:30 a.m., Channel 11

Tickets are selling like ... well, for as low as $10 on Internet broker services. Both schools are happy to be here, but wish they could have done more. Auburn was a preseason national title contender, rising as high as No. 2 in the polls, but home losses to Arkansas and Georgia derailed dreams of a Bowl Championship Series title game berth. Auburn was, however, the only team to beat Florida.

Nebraska won the Big 12 North Division but gave back some momentum with an ugly, 21-7 loss to Oklahoma in the conference title game. Cornhuskers Coach Bill Callahan apologized to fans for his team's performance and hopes he doesn't have to do it again.

Gator Bowl

Georgia Tech (9-4) vs.

West Virginia (10-2)

10 a.m., Channel 2

Both schools are trying to move past off-field drama that made headlines in the last month. West Virginia fans had to sweat out a seemingly impending move by Coach Rich Rodriguez to Alabama, reported as fact in some Southern papers. But Rodriguez, in an emotional news conference, announced he was staying in Morgantown for the foreseeable future -- or at least through next year. Georgia Tech is dealing with the loss of three players, including starting quarterback Reggie Ball, who have been declared academically ineligible for the Gator Bowl.

Capital One Bowl

Arkansas (10-3) vs

Wisconsin (11-1)

10 a.m., Channel 7

Arkansas seeks revenge for a 64-7 loss to Wisconsin in 1912? OK, maybe not. But there is a lot going on in both programs. Wisconsin has a sensational freshman in P.J. Hill, who led the Big Ten in rushing. The Badgers, albeit quietly, fell one 14-point, road loss to Michigan from playing for the national title.

Arkansas Coach Houston Nutt spent the month trying to head off a coup by three freshmen who complained to Athletic Director Frank Broyles about the direction of the offense.

Nutt, it seems, wanted to give the ball a lot to Darren McFadden, who rushed for 1,558 yards, finished second in the Heisman Trophy balloting and led the Razorbacks to a 10-win season.

What was Nutt thinking?

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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