IN HIS 40 years at the helm at Penn State, coach Joe Paterno has had five undefeated seasons and won two national titles. But heading into this fall, he was widely lampooned as an anachronism in Coke-bottle glasses who had lost his ability to manage the modern game. The Nittany Lions had suffered through the worst two-year stretch of Paterno's tenure, during which they went 7-16, and they couldn't even crack the preseason top six in the Big Ten. At the conference's annual media day in Chicago, junior linebacker Paul Posluszny sat at a deserted table in a ballroom of the Hyatt Regency and watched as reporters and camera crews swarmed players and coaches from Iowa, Michigan and Ohio State. The question posed most often to him was when he thought the 78-year-old Paterno should retire. "We're Penn State," Posluszny says, "and we were forgotten."
But nobody will soon forget what Paterno and the Nittany Lions have done this season. By beating Michigan State 31-22 last Saturday, Penn State ran its record to 10-1, clinched its first Big Ten championship in 11 years, gained its first BCS bid and retained an outside shot at JoePa's third and most improbable national title. Paterno accomplished all of this by defying his critics at every turn: He landed two of the country's top prospects in Justin King and Derrick Williams, then turned their 4.3 speed loose by using them as wideouts; and he transformed formerly underachieving quarterback Michael Robinson into Happy Valley's version of Texas's Vince Young, a player capable of winning games with his arm or his legs. As the wins have mounted, Paterno has insisted that he never changed a thing, that he was just a few playmakers away from winning again.
Yet if any playmaker was emblematic of the program's resurrection it was Posluszny, a Butkus Award finalist who had spurned more than 20 other scholarship offers to join the proud tradition of Linebacker U, only to find it in a state of precipitous decline. He had been part of a solid defense last year, but it was unable to take chances because the offense was so anemic. This season, however, with a shutout no longer a requirement, Posluszny (Puz-LUZ-nee) has been both the leading tackler and the heartbeat of an attacking, fearsome unit that ranks among the best in the nation. Penn State has the sixth-most sacks, is 10th in points allowed, 11th against the run and 17th in total defense.
As he walked off the field at Spartan Stadium, Posluszny paused to consider how far he and his teammates had come from that day in Chicago. "Not many people thought we were going to be good, but here we are: We finally won the Big Ten," he says. "To go from the bottom of the barrel to the top, that was the only thing on my mind."
Spider Caldwell knew that Posluszny was going to be plenty good the first time he watched him play. Caldwell recognized the all-around talent: the strength to stop a 225-pound running back in his tracks, the speed to chase down a scrambling quarterback. He also saw something familiar in the no-nonsense way Posluszny carried himself off the field and how fiercely he competed on it. Caldwell had seen that sort of linebacker at Penn State before. "The kid," he recalls thinking, "is just like Shane."
Posluszny was just an eager freshman then. Shane was Shane Conlan, a two-time All-America linebacker for the Nittany Lions and a captain of the 1986 title team. Caldwell had been a student manager for that squad and had gone to work in the equipment room after graduating in '87. Now the head equipment manager, he has the responsibility of assigning each player a uniform number, and in the spring of 2004 he switched Posluszny from 39 to 31, which had been worn by Conlan. "I have personal feelings about seeing the number 31 out there," says Caldwell. "A lot of great linebackers have worn it since I've been here: Shane, Andre Collins, Mac Morrison. I told Paul, 'This one has a lot of history.'"
Two years later, Posluszny has restored the position at Penn State to its former glory. From 1980 to 2000, 29 of the school's linebackers were selected in the NFL draft; not one has been taken since. That will surely change by the time the 6'2", 234-pound Puz leaves Happy Valley. As fast to the ball as any linebacker in the country, he can stop cold a back as powerful as Minnesota's Gary Russell or cover one as fast as Wisconsin's Brian Calhoun. "It's almost like having an extra strong safety," says defensive coordinator Tom Bradley. Paterno calls Posluszny "certainly one of the best linebackers we've ever had. He is so close to Shane Conlan. They play so similar a game." Taking the praise a step further, former Nittany Lions All-America linebacker and Pro Football Hall of Famer Jack Ham says, "Of all the great ones to play here, I rate him Number 1. There's not a weakness in his game."
Off the field, Posluszny carries himself in a confident, dignified way that Caldwell calls "almost military." It's no accident. A History Channel aficionado, Posluszny says he considered applying to the Naval Academy out of Hopewell High in Aliquippa, Pa., and still talks about his desire to enter the service, perhaps through Marine officers candidate school. Over the desk in his dorm room hangs a picture of Pat Tillman, the former Arizona Cardinals safety who walked away from the NFL to become an Army Ranger, then was killed in Afghanistan last year. "Kids I played with in high school are in Iraq, and all I have to worry about is football," Posluszny says. "At some point I want to be one of them."
A finance major with a 3.67 GPA, Posluszny is more likely to have his nose buried in a book about history or politics than in a copy of Maxim. Before the season, Posluszny's teammates elected him a captain, making him the first junior to be so honored since defensive linemen Mike Reid and Steve Smear in 1968. "Paul's a believer," explains Bradley. "He believes in what he's doing, and he believes in this team. It's rubbed off on everybody."
Posluszny's character was forged in a small, three-bedroom brick house in blue-collar Hopewell Township, about 50 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. The middle child of five--he has two sisters and two brothers--he attended Catholic grade school at Our Lady of Fatima Church, where his mother, Jackie, who graduated magna cum laude from Slippery Rock, was a substitute teacher. When he was in the second grade, she officiated a math contest in his class and was taken aback when he burst into tears after answering a question incorrectly. "I preached to all my kids about doing well in school," she says. "But sometimes Paul was harder on himself than I was."
Posluszny grew up admiring his father, Paul Sr., a onetime commuter airline pilot who works for U.S. Airways as a mechanic. A former high school football player, he steered his children toward sports. Because Jackie forbade video games, Paul spent most of his time outside competing with his older brother, Stan. More often than not, their rivalry escalated into a physical game of one-on-one basketball. "It was usually first to 11 wins," says Stan, a senior outfielder at West Virginia, "but we rarely got that far."
Few spots in the country can rival Western Pennsylvania for its devotion to high school football, and the area of Beaver County along the Ohio River has produced a raft of great players. Mike Ditka hails from Aliquippa, and Joe Namath is from Beaver Falls. Hopewell's most famous alumnus is Pro Football Hall of Fame running back Tony Dorsett. Posluszny, who played running back and linebacker, embraced that tradition and played with an abandon that bordered on the fanatical. When he was a senior, Hopewell coach Dave Vestal rested Posluszny for several games because of a high ankle sprain. During one game, however, Vestal watched in disbelief as Posluszny sprinted onto the field, lined up with the defense and tackled a runner behind the line.
As a freshman, Posluszny played his way onto Penn State's two-deep with his toughness and relentlessness. "We were struggling to make plays," says linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden. "We needed more athletes with a knack for pressing the ball. Paul just naturally attacks the line of scrimmage." What came less naturally was his adjustment to losing. Hopewell High dropped only seven games during Posluszny's career, but the Nittany Lions finished ninth in the Big Ten in each of his first two seasons. Still, he remained optimistic about spearheading the return of Linebacker U. Dan Connor, a sophomore linebacker, recalls that on his first recruiting visit to State College, "Paul was talking about it, about bringing it back."
Posluszny isn't a vocal captain, choosing instead to lead by example. With admiring smiles, teammates and coaches tell stories that describe his toughness and dedication. There was the time last year he came out of a game with a stinger and, after struggling so fiercely with the training staff to get back on the field, passed out from the pain. Or the time last spring when a poorly fitted helmet opened a cut on his nose that he never noticed. By the middle of practice Puz's face was covered with blood. "He looked like Braveheart," says Vanderlinden. "I finally had to tell him to get out."
A few weeks ago Posluszny created a stir in State College when, in response to a reporter's question, he said he had sometimes thought about leaving early for the NFL. "I said, 'Yeah, of course I think about it,'" he says, adding, "I should have been more careful. I don't see myself leaving Penn State."
With the Nittany Lions playing the way he always thought they would, how could he? A national title might be a long shot this year, but there's always 2006. That would be a fitting ending for Posluszny's Penn State career--and perhaps Paterno's as well.
Look for Mark Beech's Inside College Football every week at SI.com.