They Are….Penn State: Wood Duo Helps Lion Resurgence
Running in the December 8th Bucks County Herald
On the afternoon of September 24th, Happy Valley was anything but.
#4 Michigan had just throttled Penn State 49-10 in Ann Arbor. The Nittany Lions were 2-2 and looking very mediocre.
But remember one of Joe Paterno’s legacy quotes: “Believe deep down in your heart that you are destined to do great things.”
Penn State was destined to do great things.
“We didn’t really change much about our defense. We just focused the next game after Michigan on fundamentals and playing ball like we all know how to play ball,” said sophomore linebacker Jake Cooper.
The Nittany Lions were embarking on a turnaround that ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit called “the story of the year in college football.” Doylestown’s Cooper, and his Archbishop Wood teammate Ryan Bates, were two reasons why.
After nipping Minnesota in overtime and pounding Maryland, the Nittany Lions got their signature win of the 2010s- a thrilling 24-21 upset over #2 Ohio State on October 22nd. Penn State (11-2) would eventually win the Big 10 East, and run their regular season win streak to eight, outscoring opponents 232-81 in those last five victories.
In the first weekend of December, the Lions rallied from a 28-7 deficit to crunch Wisconsin 38-31. The “W” gave Penn State its ninth victory in a row and more importantly, their first Big 10 title since 2008. A date with USC in the Rose Bowl awaits them on January 2nd.
Warrington’s Bates, a redshirt freshman, started every game at left guard until an injury to a teammate moved him to tackle in mid-November.
“That first year of college, you get a feel for the game and tempo,” Bates observed. “You know the offense that you’re running. It’s a real high tempo offense that is much different than what we ran in high school. Redshirting allowed me to learn the plays and see them mentally and physically.”
Bates and Cooper, who appeared in six games with two starts for PSU, both won consecutive state titles at Wood.
“Ryan Bates is the best offensive lineman I have ever coached,” emailed Wood head coach Steve Devlin. “His athleticism for a big guy is something special. Penn State has a great one with Ryan.
“Jake Cooper was the leader of my team when he was here,” Devlin continued. “He is a very tough, smart, hard-nosed player. Off the field, he is one of the greatest kids you’ll ever have the chance to be around.”
“The football program at Wood is essentially run like a mini college program,” Cooper explained. “Coach Devlin and Coach (Mike) Carey stressed that practice needed to be organized, we needed to execute throughout the week and we lifted during the week as well. Film study was every day.”
“Archbishop Wood, Coach Devlin and Coach Carey really prepared us for the next level,” Bates echoed. “We are a film oriented team so we watched film all of the time and they say that’s a big part of the next level- knowing your opponent and making corrections off of former games and during practice.”
The two had similar experiences at Wood, but had very different ones in their freshman year of 2015-16. Bates redshirted.
“Going from high school to college is a huge jump. The game is faster. There is more that you have to know,” Bates noted. “My first year, I came in at 278. I’m 305 right now but that first year allowed me to gain all of that weight and muscle mass and I’m still as quick as I was at 275.
“Our strength coaches do a great job in helping to maintain speed and gain good weight,” Bates continued. He believes that nutrition factored into his bulking up without losing agility.
Injuries at linebacker, on the other hand, threw Cooper into the proverbial fire. He played in all but one game. “I remember the opening Temple game thinking that I needed to prepare like I was going to play and I did,” Cooper recalled. “It was chaotic but it was cool at the same time. Those first couple of experiences of playing in front of so many fans like that was breathtaking.
“But after those first couple of experiences were over, I was able to buckle down, play and forget about all of the other distractions. Football,” he concluded, “gets a little more complicated but at the end of the day, playing defense is: go tackle the guy with the ball.”
Cooper’s season concluded with a start against Georgia in the TaxSlayer Bowl. As a kid, Cooper remembered Georgia being a perennial powerhouse, so making his first start against a team with that tradition was extra special.
Bates might have just seen the practice field last year, but he was giving and taking licks against D-linemen like Carl Nassib, Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel every day. All three are in the NFL now.
“Going against those seniors who all went through the Draft last year really helped me in the long run,” Bates pointed out. And now, as a manhandling lineman, he helped PSU average over 475 yards per game during its win streak.
“I think that’s the difference in how we’re playing now- we’re focusing on fundamentals. We’re playing aggressive and I feel like our whole demeanor switched after the (Michigan) game,” Cooper believes.
Bates was prophetic during this late-October interview. “We’re learning the new offense and I feel like each week we complete more of the offense and become closer as a unit,” he said. “I can’t wait for the end of the season- we’ve already looked back at the beginning of the season and went ‘Wow, look where we are now. We’re that much better than we were before.’ And next year, we’re only going to be that much better than we were this year.”
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