Publish date:

We Are Defense

During Penn State's run to No. 3 the offense got the glory, but against Ohio State the guys on the other side of the ball saved the day and gave the Nittany Lions a clear shot at the BCS title game

If this season'soffensive masterpieces are being painted by Big 12 teams in places such asAustin and Lubbock and Norman, what we saw in Columbus last Saturday night wasan exhibition of cave drawings. Before its paleolithic 13-6 victory over OhioState, Penn State hadn't won in the Horseshoe in three decades. Which is abouthow far these teams set offensive football back over the course of three hoursin what amounted to a de facto Big Ten title game. ¶ In a clash ofteams from swing states, conservatism ruled. With the stakes high and the gametight, both coaches opted to play it close to the vest, one literally, theother figuratively. The result was a dearth of scoring (a combined six pointsuntil late in the third quarter) and a wealth of off-tackle plays that WoodyHayes himself might have called.

But rather thancarp at the offenses, let us celebrate a clean, close, exceptionallyhard-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 justa little bit stouter. Yes, the Nittany Lions committed zero penalties, but thatwas their second most remarkable statistic from this game; that they held OhioState's monster junior running back, Chris (Beanie) Wells, to 55 yards on 22carries was even more impressive. And with the game slipping away from thevisitors, it was a fumble forced by Penn State that kept its unbeaten seasonalive.

Having passedtheir sternest test of 2008, the third-ranked Nittany Lions (9-0, 5-0 in theBig Ten) now seem to find themselves in the HOV lane to the BCS ChampionshipGame, to be played on Jan. 8 in Miami. Following a bye week, they travelto 5-3 Iowa, then finish up with home games against 3-5 Indiana and surging 7-2Michigan State. Top-ranked Texas and No. 2 Alabama have tougher schedulesremaining 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 upbeatstory of the season. Physically compromised though he may be--pain in his rightleg forced the 81-year-old coach into the press box for a fourth straightweek--JoePa remains mentally sharp. If anything, his players say, he's becomemore hands-on since his bum limb forced him into a golf cart at practices. Thecart, explains senior left tackle Gerald Cadogan, allows Paterno to "sneakup on you. You don't hear him coming, and then all of a sudden he's telling youwhat you're doing wrong, what you're doing worse, what you're doing horrible.He's still the same Coach Paterno."

That's the samecoach who had four losing seasons out of five from 2000 through '04. After PennState went 4-7 in '04, the university's president and athletic director werereportedly among a group of four officials who knocked on Paterno's door andasked him to consider stepping aside. Paterno said he wouldn't quit, then ledhis team to an 11-1 season in '05. Since those lean years both Paterno and thePenn State faithful are less inclined to take success for granted.

They need tosavor this win. Because at the rate Terrelle Pryor is progressing, it's goingto be very tough to beat the Buckeyes for the next few seasons.

For threequarters, the 19-year-old Pryor showed why he was the nation's top recruit ayear ago. For three quarters, the freshman quarterback outplayed hiscounterpart, Penn State senior Daryll Clark, the triggerman for the NittanyLions' Spread HD (which at times on this night seemed to stand for HumDrum orHow Disappointing). In that span Pryor completed 13 of 18 passes and convertedsix of 11 third downs.

Clinging to a 6-3lead with 11 minutes to play, Ohio State faced a third-and-one atmidfield. Coach Jim (the Vest) Tressel made the call: quarterback sneak. Mostof the 105,711 souls in the Horseshoe knew what was coming--including PennState defensive coordinator Tom Bradley, who dialed up a "smoke stunt,"a linebacker blitz designed to thwart a sneak.

Pryor read theblitz and cut to the outside. "They were pinching in," he lamentedlater. "I figured I'd just take a chance. I knew I'd probably be in troublein the film room. . . . I just wanted to make a play. I had the edge. All I hadto do was beat number 9."

That would besenior safety Mark Rubin, whose most remarkable feats, until that moment, hadtaken place in water. As a teen growing up outside Buffalo, Rubin was an eliteyouth swimmer, an eight-time high school All-America who frequently raced--andoccasionally outtouched--a stringy adolescent named Michael Phelps. "Iprobably beat him five to 10 times," says Rubin, who does admit that Phelpsbeat him 30 to 40 times. Despite being recruited by Penn State to compete inboth sports, Rubin hung up his Speedo to focus on football. After yo-yoingbetween wide receiver and safety for three seasons, he settled in the secondarylast year.

Upon impact,Rubin punched the ball out of Pryor's grasp with his left fist, setting off awild scramble that called to mind a mob of children chasing a greased pig atthe county fair. The ball was touched by half a dozen players before it wascovered by the Nittany Lions' rising star outside linebacker, Navorro Bowman,at the Buckeyes' 38.

That turnover,the game's first, set up Penn State's winning touchdown, scored seven playslater by backup quarterback Pat Devlin on a one-yard sneak. Devlin, asophomore, was in the game because Clark had sustained a mild concussion whilefighting for extra yards on a run late in the third quarter.

A product ofUrsuline High in Youngstown, Ohio, Clark had intended to remind Buckeyes fansthat not all of the state's best players end up in Columbus. But the maestro ofthe Spread HD, which had produced 45.4 points per game before Saturday,found the going much harder in the Horseshoe. The Nittany Lions' offense had togrind for every one of its 281 total yards--201 below its average. "Not toopretty!" shouted Penn State senior center A.Q. Shipley, throwing his armaround receiver Deon Butler after the game. "Win's a win, baby!" Butlerhollered back.

Before his earlyexit, Clark threw for all of 121 yards; senior wideouts Butler, Jordan Norwoodand Derrick Williams combined for only 28 receiving yards. On this night it wasPenn State's no-name defense that supplied the heroes. In addition to Rubin,who added 11 tackles to his Strip Heard 'Round the College Football World,there was Bowman, a sophomore who had 10 tackles, his fifth double-digittotal of the season. Fellow sophomore Aaron Maybin, a defensive end, naileddown his 11th sack of the season when he dropped Pryor for a nine-yard lossnear the end of the first half.

Finally, it wassenior cornerback Lydell Sargeant's last-minute, end-zone interception thatensured Penn State's first win in the 'Shoe since the Carteradministration.

There are 33 milkshakes on the menu at the Eat'n Park diner in Jeannette, Pa., where Pryorplayed high school football. Every time Bradley made the 122-mile journey fromState College to Jeannette while recruiting Pryor, he would drop in and order ashake. "Sometimes," he says, "I'd get one on the way home too."The shakes are listed in alphabetical order. By the time Pryor committed to theBuckeyes, says Bradley, "I was up to strawberry banana."

Though Pryorultimately dubbed State College too "country" for his taste, thequarterback and the coordinator remain friendly. Sitting in his office fourdays before the game, Bradley could only shake his head at a Pryor highlightfrom the previous week: the freshman stiff-arming a Michigan State cornerbackon an 11-yard run for a first down. "He doesn't run like a guy who's 6'6", 235," said Bradley, "but he is."

Determined toprevent Pryor from attacking the corner, where he's most dangerous, Bradleygave his defenders specific instructions. They were told to "stay home"and keep Pryor inside their "upfield shoulder" even if it took some ofthe teeth out of Penn State's pass rush. "We were nervous about going afterhim," Bradley acknowledges. "He's such a great scrambler. We wanted himto have to throw the ball."

And so Pryor did,completing 16 of his 25 passes (the most he's thrown in his six starts)for 226 yards. The success of Bradley's plan could be measured in Pryor'srushing numbers--nine carries for six yards--and in that fateful fumble.

The reversal offortune deflated Pryor, even as it awakened the Nittany Lions' dormant runningattack. Sophomore tailback Evan Royster picked up 43 of his game-high77 yards on nine fourth-quarter carries. As Royster tore off 10- andnine-yard chunks of real estate on successive plays, Pryor'sscarlet-skullcapped head dropped lower and lower on the bench. When Pryorfinally got back on the field with 67 seconds to play and no timeouts, hedrove the Buckeyes 37 yards. With a half minute to play, he rolled rightand let go a desperation heave that guaranteed that Ohio State will not returnto the BCS title game for a third straight year.

Sargeant's pickkicked off a party in the bleachers behind the north end zone. A man in aPaterno mask high-fived a trio of guys holding up the numbers 3-8-1. The battlecry "We Are . . . Penn State!" went up, visibly disgusting Buckeyesfans. No one was more euphoric than former Nittany Lions and Cincinnati Bengalsrunning back Ki-Jana Carter, who pinballed among the celebrants, lending hisvoice to the cheers, congratulating players and snapping photos.

So jacked up wasCarter that, after embracing the receiver Williams, he shouted something thatPaterno doesn't want to hear, not with three games still to play: "See youin Miami, baby!"

Royster (right) tore off 10- and nine-yard chunks ofREAL ESTATE on successive plays.

"He's a great SCRAMBLER," Bradley says ofPryor (right). "We wanted him to throw."




Check out the latest Power Rankings, Mailbag and Five Things We Learned, allfrom Stewart Mandel, every week during the season.



Photograph by Bill Frakes

 ONO The game turned when Pryor (2) ran to the outside and was met by Rubin,who caused a fumble that Penn State recovered.



caged lions Clark (17) and the Spread HD were contained much of the night, ending 201 yards below the offense's per-game average.



 SCORINGDROOUGHT A field goal by Kevin Kelly (23) accounted for Penn State's onlypoints until midway through the fourth quarter.