JACK CRAWFORD is hurting. The discomfort in his injured right foot no longer is severe enough to keep him off the football field, but the quality of his play has been compromised, his acceleration off the edge slowed. He tries to rush the passer, but he can't generate the quickness, power and maneuverability he did his first two seasons at Penn State, when the London-born defensive end was celebrated by the nickname-loving student body as "Jack the Ripper."
He's more like Jack the Tripper now, gingerly pushing off on the sore foot, playing fewer downs both on game day and at practice as a hedge against aggravating the sprained and stretched ligament that has largely spoiled what he had hoped would be a personal breakout season. The 6-5, 271-pound Crawford, who came to the United States in 2005 to play high school basketball at St. Augustine Prep in Richland, N.J., before discovering another sport that suited him better, had hoped to perform well enough to be named All-Big Ten Conference, maybe even an All-America, while helping the Nittany Lions to national championship contention and a BCS bowl game. It hasn't worked out the way he hoped for either himself or the team.
"I'm about 80 percent," Crawford said when asked how his recovery was progressing. "I'm still taking it light in practice. [Defensive line] coach [Larry] Johnson doesn't make me do everything. I get in a few plays here and there, then rest. It can be dangerous out there. You can make your injury worse.
"It has been rough. I'm still feeling it, but there's nothing I can do about it now. You just have to do the best that you can and hope to heal up in the offseason."
Some approximation of the old Ripper would go a long way toward helping Penn State (7-4, 4-3 Big Ten) spring an upset against No. 11 Michigan State (10-1, 6-1), which, of course, has a quarterback with a strong arm, decent mobility and a veteran offensive line dedicated to the proposition that his jersey shouldn't be dirtied. The Lions have faced a succession of top-tier quarterbacks, from mobile types like Michigan's Denard Robinson, Northwestern's Dan Persa and Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor to more conventional pocket passers like Minnesota's Adam Weber and Indiana's Ben Chappell.
MSU's Kirk Cousins is a hybrid, a cool customer who has the skill and the moxie that helped the Spartans bounce back from last year's 6-7 record to a shot at the Rose Bowl.
"He's an outstanding quarterback," Penn State coach Joe Paterno said of Cousins, a 6-3, 202-pound junior. "He's probably as good an overall quarterback as we're going to play. He's smart, and he's accurate."
A year ago, Cousins was smart and accurate, but he was hounded unmercifully by a Penn State defense that was much more experienced and considerably less banged-up. In a 42-14 romp by the Lions in East Lansing, Mich., Cousins was hurried, harassed and hit often. He was intercepted twice and sacked once, with the Ripper among those applying pressure.
This season, Crawford has started only five games, four at left end, one at right end. He will open on the right side tomorrow, but will cede snaps to backups Sean Stanley and Eric Latimore.
There is no getting around the decrease in Crawford's numbers. A year ago, he was on the cusp of stardom, starting all 13 games, registering 31 tackles, 14 1/2 tackles for loss and 5 1/2 sacks. This season, he has been in on only 12 tackles with four TFLs and two sacks.
"It's been a long season," he said. "It really didn't go how I wanted it to go. We had a lot of high hopes. We still do. We still believe we have a very talented squad, but we just couldn't put things together.
"I had a great offseason and a great [preseason] camp. I was really happy with where I was, physically. I was very confident coming into the season. I thought I was a better player than I was last year, and I still believe that. But things just don't go your way sometimes."
Crawford is hoping rest and rehabilitation after Penn State's bowl game will allow him to heal without undergoing surgery.
"When it happened, the doctor told me it'd be 8 to 10 weeks," Crawford said. "It's gotten better, but the pain is still there. If I can just stay off the foot after the season, I should be fully recovered by next season."
3 things to look for
* The Lions desperately want to end the regular season on a high note with a victory over a nationally ranked team. Everyone knows that Penn State is the first school to have to play three BCS bowl winners (Alabama, Iowa, Ohio State) on the road the following season, and its 0-3 record in those games should come as no surprise. But did you realize that PSU is 14-29 against ranked teams since 2000? The time is ripe for this young bunch to make a statement about its present, and its future.
* Win or lose, Penn State is being targeted for an invitation to the Jan. 1 Gator Bowl game in Jacksonville, Fla., possibly against Florida.
* Even though he's making only his fourth career start, redshirt sophomore quarterback Matt McGloin, with a big afternoon, might merit being named the team's most valuable player.
THIS WEEK'S GAME
Who: No. 11 Michigan State at Penn State
When: Tomorrow, 12:01 p.m.
Where: Beaver Stadium, State College
Radio: WNTP (990-AM); WPNV (1440-AM)
Records: Michigan State (10-1, 6-1 Big Ten); Penn State (7-4, 4-3)
History: The Nittany Lions lead the series, 14-12-1, but have been especially dominant since joining the Big Ten in 1993, going 13-4 against the Spartans, including an 8-0 mark in Beaver Stadium. A year ago, in East Lansing, the Lions snapped a 7-7 halftime deadlock with 28 third-quarter points en route to a 42-14 victory.
Coaches: Mark Dantonio (fourth year at school, 32-18; seventh year overall, 50-35); Joe Paterno (45th year, 401-133-3)
About Michigan State: Junior quarterback Kirk Cousins, hailed as "Captain Kirk" for his heroics in this special season, turned in a performance befitting the Starship Enterprise's heroic commander in last week'' 35-31, come-from-behind victory over Purdue. Playing with a sprained left ankle and sprained left shoulder, he rallied the Spartans to 22 fourth-quarter points and erased a 15-point deficit . . . Redshirt freshman linebacker Denicos Allen was named Big Ten co-special teams player of the week for blocking the punt that set up MSU's winning touchdown . . . Sophomore running back Edwin Baker has emerged as a star, rushing for 1,069 yards, averaging 6.4 yards per carry and scoring 12 touchdowns . . . Sophomore kicker Dan Conroy had nailed 14 of 15 field-goal attempts.
About Penn State: Senior center/guard Stefen Wisniewski, redshirt sophomore defensive end Pete Massaro and senior middle linebacker Chris Colasanti all were named ESPN first-team academic All-America . . . Senior tailback and school career rushing leader Evan Royster run for 831 yards and can make it three 1,000-yard seasons in a row if he averages 134.5 yards per game against Michigan State and the Lions' bowl opponent . . . Colasanti has a team-high 92 tackles, more than double the 37 he recorded in his first three seasons . . . This will be Penn State's first regular-season game after Thanksgiving since Dec. 1, 2001, at Virginia. That game was postponed from Sept. 13 following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.
PREDICTION: PENN STATE 28, MICHIGAN STATE 27.