Penn State gets reacquainted with national relevance
Posted: Sunday October 9, 2005 12:34AM; Updated: Sunday October 9, 2005 3:00AM
Joe Paterno has the Penn State fans revved up again with a surprising 6-0 start.
Submit a question or an opinion to Stewart.
The first sign that this would be a different day in Happy Valley came early Saturday. Appearing on ESPN's GameDay show, Joe Paterno -- yes, Joe Paterno -- looked into the camera and, with a smirk on his face and just a hint of cockiness in his Brooklyn accent, reminded viewers: "We are ... Penn State."
Huh? Where did that come from? Better question: Where did the 2005 Nittany Lions come from?
Following an inspired 17-10 victory over No. 6 Ohio State, 6-0 Penn State is suddenly the team to beat in the Big Ten. What a change from the past two years, when the Nittany Lions were the team the rest of the Big Ten beat.
Any lingering skeptics waiting for the bomb to drop on PSU's meteoric rise from the ashes will have to wait at least another week, if not longer. When Nittany Lions defensive end Tamba Hali came crashing down on Buckeyes quarterback Troy Smith in the waning moments Saturday night, forcing a game-clinching fumble that Scott Paxson recovered, he put the final exclamation point on a succinct but powerful statement: Penn State is back.
Asked in a harried postgame interview whether the above is indeed true, Paterno replied, "I don't know that we ever left." Don't kid us, JoePa. Your team went 7-16 the past two seasons. You left the scene, all right. But you sure know how to make a dramatic reentrance.
Paterno has won a lot of big games over the past 39 seasons, but this one was the biggest in a long, long time. This one confirmed that the Nittany Lions aren't just improved; they're good. In a defensive slugfest, Penn State went toe to toe for 60 minutes with a Buckeyes squad that came within a hair of beating No. 2 Texas not long ago and, in a reversal of much of their past five seasons, the Nittany Lions were the ones who made the extra plays to win.
Running back Tony Hunt converting a fourth and 1 on Penn State's first scoring drive. Freshman sensation Derrick Williams getting to the outside and bursting into the end zone. Calvin Lowry picking off Smith's second-quarter pass to set up the Nittany Lions' second touchdown. Hali drilling Smith to kill Ohio State's last shot.
These were the kind of plays quarterback Michael Robinson was talking about when he said before the season, "We were a play or two away" from having a great season last year. Robinson's own last-minute heroics at Northwestern two weeks back qualify as well. Such is the fine line between finishing 4-7 and starting 6-0 headed into another golden opportunity next week against struggling Michigan.
As it turns out, Paterno did not let the game pass him by. And he can in fact adapt to the modern climate. Penn State's transformation this season is about far more than a couple of speedy freshmen (though they certainly help). In many ways, the Nittany Lions are playing a different brand of football than they did in Paterno's glory days. They're lining up receivers in the backfield. They're running the option out of the shotgun. And they're adapting to defenses rather than making defenses adapt to them.
But there's one thing this Penn State team shares in common with those of Shane Conlan, Mike Reid and the like: an absolutely dominant defense. Last week, the Nittany Lions shut down one of the nation's top running attacks against Minnesota. This week's foe, the Buckeyes, had no shortage of weapons, most notably Smith himself, but they could manage just 230 yards against Hali, Paxson, Lowry and Paul Posluszny. (The Lions gained just 195 yards themselves, a testament to OSU's equally menacing, albeit wasted, defense). Many will question Jim Tressel's conservative play-calling in the game, and rightfully so, but the reality is it's hard to take chances against a defense as sound as Penn State's. Even with a mostly horizontal attack, the Buckeyes were always one Smith juke, one Santonio Holmes sprint or one Ted Ginn Jr. sidestep from busting a big play. There's a reason it never happened.
A year ago we were debating whether Paterno's stubborn refusal to retire was setting his program further back. No matter how the season ultimately ends -- it's still hard to imagine the Nittany Lions running the table, but a BCS bowl is looking more and more likely -- one thing is clear: Penn State is back on solid footing.
Paterno could walk away tomorrow comfortable in the knowledge that Happy Valley is hip again. Prized recruits like Robinson, Williams, Justin King and Dan Connor, guys who could have gone to any program in the country, are as eager as ever to don the Penn State uniform. White-clad students are suddenly turning Beaver Stadium into football's version of Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium, their electricity practically seeping through the television Saturday night.
Most importantly, the Nittany Lions are winning big games. It's as if they are ... Penn State.