What a day to be Joe Paterno.
While 100,000-plus spectators froze their butts off at snow-covered Beaver Stadium, the 84-year-old Hall of Famer sat comfortably in the press box, seen at one point sipping on a hot beverage. Like the rest of them, he witnessed history.
His quarterbacks, once again, were mostly anemic. His team went nearly 59 minutes without reaching the end zone. Yet when all was said and done -- after previously perfect Illinois kicker Derek Dimke's 42-yard field-goal attempt doinked off the right upright as time expired -- Penn State's undefeated Big Ten record remained intact and its iconic coach reached yet another milestone. Paterno landed his 409th career win, breaking the Division I record previously held by Grambling legend Eddie Robinson.
Penn State improved to 8-1 (5-0 Big Ten) in exactly the type of game Paterno enjoys most. He presumably would have preferred to see quarterbacks Matt McGloin and Rob Bolden complete more than 9-of-28 passes and his offense convert more than 3-of-15 third downs. But on a sloppy afternoon, his defense held Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase to 63 passing yards. The Nittany Lions won the turnover battle. And when the offense finally came to life to score 10 fourth-quarter points, it did so with power.
Silas Redd, Penn State's emerging star tailback, rushed nine times for 28 yards on his team's final two drives and punched in the go-ahead three-yard touchdown with 1:08 remaining. The Nittany Lions' steadfast running attack opened the field for passing opportunities, but for most of the game, McGloin (9-of-24 for 98 yards and a pick) couldn't take advantage. But then top receiver Derek Moye, purportedly sitting out his second straight game with a broken foot, trotted on to the field for the final drive. ABC's Lisa Salters -- citing her nephew, a Penn State journalism student -- reported that Moye said he would only be available in case of emergency.
This was an emergency.
Suddenly McGloin found his rhythm, hitting Moye for a 20-yard completion and Justin Brown for two first-down conversions. The most important play, however, came when Moye drew a (questionable) pass interference call on fourth-and-six at the Illinois 32. Given new life, the Nittany Lions completed the drive. Illinois marched 58 yards in under a minute, but as if scripted in Hollywood, Dimke's kick to send the game to overtime missed by the slimmest of margins.
And that's how Paterno got to 409.
Paterno's latest milestone won't garner nearly the same attention as when he broke Bear Bryant's Division I-A record in 2001, and understandably so. This one seems less an achievement than a courtesy, like a Hall of Fame pitcher who lost his fastball years ago but still gets credit for lasting an inning every couple of nights. No one is naïve enough to think Paterno is the driving reason for Penn State's success this season, or even the past several seasons. He's still a presence from Sunday to Friday, but on Saturdays he may have less influence on the outcome than anyone in the stadium outside of the ushers and the sportswriters. At least the fans can psyche out the opponent.
But we should still salute him. In a sport filled with misguided, misbehaved or flat-out devious individuals, JoePa remains our moral compass, as he has for more than five decades. No. 409 may be largely symbolic, but it's another excuse to celebrate one of the most important figures ever to roam a sideline. He doesn't roam them anymore, but he did so long enough to put himself in this position.
Paterno is unlikely to reflect on the accomplishment. He's more concerned with the season at hand. And isn't it something that in what may be the Penn State patriarch's final season, the Nittany Lions sit alone atop the Big Ten's Leaders Division.