UNIVERSITY PARK - The blessing of Penn State's past is also the curse of its present.
Under Joe Paterno, the Nittany Lions have had seven unbeaten regular seasons, two crowned national champions (1982, '86) and two teams (1969, '94) arguably worthy of the same distinction.
Paterno and his program have clearly had trouble matching his and its massive shadow in the 14 years since with only a No. 3 ranking and a Big Ten co-championship in 2005 to show for it.
Further, the Lions are 32-32 in conference play this decade with a humbling 2-15 record in their last 17 games with Ohio State and Michigan.
This middle-of-the-pack operation wouldn't dare to dawn another season dreaming of a national championship, right?
Justified or not, that is the stated mission from the top down.
"We don't want to be good, we want to be the best," Paterno said Friday during the Nits' annual media day. "I think we ought to be shooting for a national championship, but it's easier said than done."
The Lions have proven that, but it's to their credit that they keep thinking big.
"The things you've accomplished in the past are always critical because it's created a legacy and a tradition," offensive line coach Dick Anderson, who joined the staff in '73, said. "It makes the bar high."
Striving to clear it spurred the 2005 team, which this year's upperclassmen are drawing on.
''We got a lot of breaks and ended up with a great year,'' senior center A.Q. Shipley said. ''We had two solid [9-4] years since but obviously not what we wanted. Our goal is the same type of year we had in '05 but be unblemished.''
Having lost three key defensive players since April, including linebacker Sean Lee (injury) and tackles Chris Baker and Phil Taylor (both dismissed), you'd think the offense must be coached with the idea that it can't win 12-10.
Paterno, of course, downplayed the trendy spread, saying he ran it out of the shotgun as a high school senior in 1944, and sounded as if he'll proceed his way. Asked if a team built around a running game and defense can contend for a national title these days, Paterno said, ''Pitt showed that [last year] against West Virginia. West Virginia [which used the spread] was going for a national title, right?''
Lee, out for the year, thinks Penn State's success boils down to its ability to answer its biggest moments.
''We have a ton of talent,'' he said. ''It's all about making plays in big situations, which we haven't done these last couple years. I think we have the experience and talent to do it this year.''
Will the coaching and leadership, minus Lee, maximize that talent?
''I really like this squad,'' Paterno said. ''Despite all the distractions and all that's gone on, they've gathered together and made up their mind they want to be good.''
He paused and added, ''We'll be better than people think.''
Without a contract extension and in the wake of player ousters and an unflattering ESPN report depicting an out-of-control program, Paterno, 82 years old and ready for his 43rd season, knows he may be running out of time.
''We have to stay on top of things,'' he said. ''I think all of us are under the gun.''
Which, based on their history, is as it should be.
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.