FORGET Fight On, State. You could almost hear Benny Hill music during Penn State's first play from scrimmage against Michigan last Saturday. An errant shotgun snap led to a 16-yard loss as the Nittany Lions got off to a bumbling start, literally and figuratively. That bit of slapstick summed up Penn State's play for much of the first half, during which the nation's No. 3 team twice found itself 10 points down to a team with an offense ranked 109th (out of 119) in the country. ¬∂ Credit the woebegone Wolverines—who were 2--4 and coming off a loss to Toledo—for their fire. "They just hit us in the mouth," admitted Penn State quarterback Daryll Clark, who punched back by driving his team 74 yards in nine plays for a touchdown late in the first half, the first of 39 unanswered points that took the Nittany Lions from a 17--7 deficit to a 46--17 victory in Happy Valley.
Afterward, Penn State was more inclined to give thanks than excuses. "You need a day like today when things don't go your way all the time," said 81-year-old coach Joe Paterno, whose bum right hip and leg kept him in the press box for a third straight game. "Everything we've done has been so easy for us."
They needed a good scare, in other words—a jolt of adversity to steel them for the ordeal just ahead. An early season loss need not deep-six a team's national title hopes. With the first BCS rankings released on Sunday, the 2008 campaign now enters its high-stakes phase. Its next epic showdown will take place in Columbus this Saturday night, when the Nittany Lions visit No. 10 Ohio State. In addition to deciding the Big Ten title, in all probability, this border conflict is loaded with BCS implications.
The national title will be decided in Miami on Jan. 8. While it's not outside the realm of possibility for Ohio State (7--1) to reach that game—deal with it, America—it's much tougher to conjure up a scenario in which the Nittany Lions don't end up there if they stay undefeated. Of course, that will all be moot if they can't beat the Buckeyes, a feat they have failed to accomplish in seven trips to Columbus since joining the conference in 1993.
Should Penn State survive its date in the Horseshoe, it will be heavily favored in its final three games: at Iowa, then home against Indiana and Michigan State. Of those three, only the Spartans were ranked (20th) going into last Saturday, a distinction they quickly lost as the visiting Buckeyes suddenly—and finally—found an offense that had been AWOL much of the season. The Buckeyes' record belied their recent futility moving the ball. As they prepared to meet Michigan State, they stood last in the Big Ten in passing offense (143.6 yards per game), 10th in total offense (320.9) and first in fumbles lost (five). On Oct. 11, Ohio State failed to score an offensive touchdown in a 16--3 win over Purdue, which would surrender 48 points to Northwestern a week later.
Doing a slow burn in the face of mounting criticism was highly touted freshman quarterback Terrelle Pryor, who replaced sixth-year senior Todd Boeckman after the Buckeyes' sole loss this season, a 35--3 thumping at USC on Sept. 13. Last Friday, just before the team left for East Lansing, Pryor ratcheted up the pressure on himself, telling coach Jim Tressel, "If I don't move the ball down the field, you should bench me."
"Relax," came the reply from the Vest, who added as an afterthought, "If you throw it to them"—meaning the Spartans—"don't worry." Throw a pick, in other words, and your wish will be granted.
In directing four touchdown drives in the game's first 25 minutes—the Buckeyes led 28--0 en route to a 45--7 blowout—the 19-year-old from Jeannette, Pa., ran for one touchdown, threw for another and didn't turn the ball over.
And then there were the little things, the brushstrokes that don't show up on the stat sheet: Pryor stiff-arming a cornerback into the turf on his touchdown run; faking a defensive end out of his girdle pads to buy time on his scoring pass to wideout Brian Robiskie; recognizing a corner blitz, then looping a (slightly underthrown) pass to flanker Brian Hartline for the 56-yard gain that set up the Buckeyes' third touchdown. There's no question Pryor is growing up before our eyes. The question is this: Is he growing up fast enough to knock off the power from his native state? "We've got a long way to go," said Tressel, "and we've only got till Saturday to get there."
MISSOURI AT TEXAS sure looked to have the makings of an instant classic. Oh, well. While Longhorns fans hoped Colt McCoy would play as well against the 11th-ranked Tigers as he had in picking apart top-ranked Oklahoma the week before, no sober person really expected him to play better than he had in that 45--35 upset. But there was McCoy, stepping up in the pocket, making rushers miss, buying time, getting through his progressions, finding hot receivers on blitzes, never making a bad decision in a first half in which the Texas drive chart read: TOUCHDOWN, TOUCHDOWN, TOUCHDOWN, TOUCHDOWN, TOUCHDOWN. The final was 56--31. Having come into the game with a stratospheric completion percentage—79.4%—the sensational junior proceeded to improve on it, completing 29 of his 32 throws for 337 yards and two touchdowns. (He ran for two more.)
Quintessential McCoy moment: With little more than a minute to play in the first half, he was nearly sacked, then fumbled. But rather than fall on the loose ball, he scooped it up without breaking stride and, in the same fluid motion, threw to wideout Quan Cosby, whose 23-yard catch set up the Longhorns' last touchdown of the half. "We are supposed to yell at him" for not falling on the ball, said coach Mack Brown afterward. "But why yell at him when he made another first down? He's playing at a very high level."
As is a young Longhorns defense under the tutelage of defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, who, seven games into his tenure in Austin, has achieved cult-hero status. By alternating between a three- and four-man rush, by moving end Brian Orakpo, a.k.a. Osakpo, up and down the line, by stunting his down linemen and blitzing his linebackers, Muschamp and his charges baffled Chase Daniel on the Mizzou quarterback's first four possessions, holding the nation's fourth-ranked offense to 14 total yards on 15 snaps.
"And now," concluded Brown, in what is becoming the Longhorns' 2008 mantra, "we have to do it again next week."
He said that after the Oklahoma upset too. He'll repeat it, presumably, if the Longhorns get by seventh-ranked Oklahoma State this Saturday. And he'll trot it out again, if all goes well, before his team's meeting with No. 8 Texas Tech in Lubbock on Nov. 1.
It's a testament to the rise of the Big 12 that Alabama, perched at No. 2 behind Texas, has a decidedly easier finishing schedule. In a delicious twist the Tide's toughest remaining regular-season test will be its Nov. 8 date in Baton Rouge. There, LSU partisans are unlikely to muffle their displeasure with Nick Saban, the former Bayou Bengals coach and current 'Bama head man, who burned his bridges when he bolted from Louisiana to coach the Miami Dolphins following the '04 season. A win in the Saban Bowl could earn the Tigers a trip to the SEC title game and a rematch with the Florida Gators, who waxed them by 30 in the Swamp on Oct. 11.
Forgive the LSU faithful for focusing on a more imminent epic. This Saturday the defending national champs host No. 9 Georgia, the first of four straight games in Death Valley. The Bulldogs then get Florida a week later in Jacksonville. As famously plainspoken Gators coach Urban Meyer has said, "This is a tough-ass conference, man. That's part of the deal."
It is not part of the deal for Southern California, whose punishment for a late-September loss to a 25-point underdog at Oregon State was to be dropped from first to ninth in the AP poll. From that nadir, the Trojans have steadily worked their way back up to sixth. They have been aided by the fact that few pollsters witnessed their Oct. 11 win over Arizona State. True, USC won 28--0. But its offense turned the ball over on four straight third-quarter possessions.
In what was arguably the most lopsided game in Division I-A this season, the Trojans notched their second straight shutout last Saturday. The biggest problem for coach Pete Carroll in his team's 69--0 rout of Washington State was holding down the score.
In their quest to get back to their first BCS title game since January 2006, the Trojans face a different problem than most of the other contenders. While the competition faces numerous landmines on the road to Miami, USC's path is too smooth, too wide, too clear. The Pac-10, which the Trojans will likely win for the seventh straight year, is having a dreadful season. Its teams have lost six of seven matchups with Mountain West schools. Oregon lost at home to Boise State of the WAC. The Apple Cup, between Washington and Washington State, will most likely pit a 1--9 team against one that is 0--11.
Going into last weekend, Cal (No. 25) was the league's only other ranked team. And then there was one. After coughing up a 24--14 halftime lead on Saturday night, the Bears bowed at Arizona, 42--27. It has come to this: The Pac-10's sole remaining marquee matchup, such as it is, will take place this Saturday in Tucson, where the Trojans will take on a Wildcats team that hasn't been bowling in a decade.
The danger for USC? It's likely to be punished by the BCS pollsters and computers—marked down for the fluffiness of its conference schedule. It's hard to imagine the Trojans, sitting on that loss to Oregon State, sliding into the title game ahead of a one-loss team from the SEC (be it Alabama, Florida, Georgia or LSU) or the Big 12 (whether it's Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State or Texas Tech). Remember: Should the Nittany Lions win out, they're likely to earn a trip to Miami.
SO ONE would think, at any rate. In 43 years under Paterno, the program has earned renown for, among other things, its linebackers, its classic uniforms and its underappreciated undefeated seasons. Four times Paterno has won all his games only to see another team crowned No. 1.
Conceivably, it could happen again this year. These days JoePa has more pressing matters on his mind. Like making Pryor look like the freshman he is. ("He's smooth as silk," says Paterno. "We'll have our hands full with him.") And making sure his assistants get his instructions to the team at halftime. It's too difficult for him to make the trip to and from the press box at intermission, so he stays upstairs.
When the subject of BCS rankings arose, Paterno responded as if he'd been asked to comment on Lil Wayne's latest album. "Honest to God, I don't even want to talk about that," he said, sounding pained. "We've got a lot of games ahead of us. A lot of teams have a lot of games ahead of them."
True, that. But it's also true that a small number of those games will have a disproportionately large impact on who is still playing on Jan. 8. One of them kicks off in the Horseshoe this Saturday night. Let the shakeout begin.
After beating Missouri, Brown repeated what has become the HORNS' 2008 MANTRA. "Now we have to do it again next week."
LSU fans are unlikely to MUFFLE THEIR DISPLEASURE with Nick Saban when the Tide travels to Baton Rouge on Nov. 8.
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Photograph by David Bergman
POINT MEN Pryor (2) got the Buckeyes off to a flying start against the Spartans, while Clark (17) and the Nittany Lions put the Wolverines away with a strong finish.
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NEAR PERFECT Playing even better than he did against Oklahoma, McCoy led the Longhorns on five first-half TD drives.
HIGH TIDE Marquis Maze scored on a 26-yard pass play against Ole Miss as Alabama remained the SEC's only unbeaten team.