If this season's
offensive masterpieces are being painted by Big 12 teams in places such as
Austin and Lubbock and Norman, what we saw in Columbus last Saturday night was
an exhibition of cave drawings. Before its paleolithic 13-6 victory over Ohio
State, Penn State hadn't won in the Horseshoe in three decades. Which is about
how far these teams set offensive football back over the course of three hours
in what amounted to a de facto Big Ten title game. ¶ In a clash of
teams from swing states, conservatism ruled. With the stakes high and the game
tight, both coaches opted to play it close to the vest, one literally, the
other figuratively. The result was a dearth of scoring (a combined six points
until late in the third quarter) and a wealth of off-tackle plays that Woody
Hayes himself might have called.
But rather than
carp at the offenses, let us celebrate a clean, close, exceptionally
hard-hitting game that seemed--dare we say it?--SEC-like in its intensity.
Let's give it up for a pair of stout, swarming defenses, one of which was just
a little bit stouter. Yes, the Nittany Lions committed zero penalties, but that
was their second most remarkable statistic from this game; that they held Ohio
State's monster junior running back, Chris (Beanie) Wells, to 55 yards on 22
carries was even more impressive. And with the game slipping away from the
visitors, it was a fumble forced by Penn State that kept its unbeaten season
their sternest test of 2008, the third-ranked Nittany Lions (9-0, 5-0 in the
Big Ten) now seem to find themselves in the HOV lane to the BCS Championship
Game, to be played on Jan. 8 in Miami. Following a bye week, they travel
to 5-3 Iowa, then finish up with home games against 3-5 Indiana and surging 7-2
Michigan State. Top-ranked Texas and No. 2 Alabama have tougher schedules
remaining and will need to survive conference title games.
Homely as it was,
Joe Paterno's 381st win pumped still more feel-good serum into the most upbeat
story of the season. Physically compromised though he may be--pain in his right
leg forced the 81-year-old coach into the press box for a fourth straight
week--JoePa remains mentally sharp. If anything, his players say, he's become
more hands-on since his bum limb forced him into a golf cart at practices. The
cart, explains senior left tackle Gerald Cadogan, allows Paterno to "sneak
up on you. You don't hear him coming, and then all of a sudden he's telling you
what you're doing wrong, what you're doing worse, what you're doing horrible.
He's still the same Coach Paterno."
That's the same
coach who had four losing seasons out of five from 2000 through '04. After Penn
State went 4-7 in '04, the university's president and athletic director were
reportedly among a group of four officials who knocked on Paterno's door and
asked him to consider stepping aside. Paterno said he wouldn't quit, then led
his team to an 11-1 season in '05. Since those lean years both Paterno and the
Penn State faithful are less inclined to take success for granted.
They need to
savor this win. Because at the rate Terrelle Pryor is progressing, it's going
to be very tough to beat the Buckeyes for the next few seasons.
quarters, the 19-year-old Pryor showed why he was the nation's top recruit a
year ago. For three quarters, the freshman quarterback outplayed his
counterpart, Penn State senior Daryll Clark, the triggerman for the Nittany
Lions' Spread HD (which at times on this night seemed to stand for HumDrum or
How Disappointing). In that span Pryor completed 13 of 18 passes and converted
six of 11 third downs.
Clinging to a 6-3
lead with 11 minutes to play, Ohio State faced a third-and-one at
midfield. Coach Jim (the Vest) Tressel made the call: quarterback sneak. Most
of the 105,711 souls in the Horseshoe knew what was coming--including Penn
State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley, who dialed up a "smoke stunt,"
a linebacker blitz designed to thwart a sneak.
Pryor read the
blitz and cut to the outside. "They were pinching in," he lamented
later. "I figured I'd just take a chance. I knew I'd probably be in trouble
in the film room. . . . I just wanted to make a play. I had the edge. All I had
to do was beat number 9."
That would be
senior safety Mark Rubin, whose most remarkable feats, until that moment, had
taken place in water. As a teen growing up outside Buffalo, Rubin was an elite
youth swimmer, an eight-time high school All-America who frequently raced--and
occasionally outtouched--a stringy adolescent named Michael Phelps. "I
probably beat him five to 10 times," says Rubin, who does admit that Phelps
beat him 30 to 40 times. Despite being recruited by Penn State to compete in
both sports, Rubin hung up his Speedo to focus on football. After yo-yoing
between wide receiver and safety for three seasons, he settled in the secondary