Despite offensive difficulties, Penn State sitting pretty

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Penn State has reached its bye week with a perfect 5-0 record in conference play. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

With one month remaining in the Big Ten regular season and Penn State entering its bye week, the 5-0 Nittany Lions are the conference's only undefeated team in league play.

Raise your hands if you saw that coming before the season began.

"I guess a lot of people didn't expect that, but we did," wide receiver Justin Brown said after the Nittany Lions (8-1 overall) pulled out a 10-7 victory over Illinois on Saturday at snowy Beaver Stadium on Silas Redd's 3-yard touchdown run with 1 minute, 8 seconds to play.

"We know we're a pretty good team. Every game like this has been close. So we know that we're good, and we're worthy of being 8-1. So that's what it is."

Yes, it is. But this was the third conference game the Lions won by a touchdown or less. The other two results each sported just a 10-point margin, keeping the fans worried.

On Saturday, the Fighting Illini saw a fumbled hold on a field goal in the final minute of the first half result in an interception. With a chance to tie on the final play of regulation, Derek Dimke's 42-yard field-goal try clanged off the right upright.

Lucky? Of course, but no one's complaining.

"I think we have proven to ourselves, which is the important part, we'll stick together and we'll make some things happen," said Joe Paterno, who broke a tie with Grambling legend Eddie Robinson to move into first place in career victories among Division I coaches, with 409.

"Now whether that's going to be good enough for some other people, we'll have to see. It certainly wasn't good enough against Alabama. We didn't play that kind of game against Alabama. We dropped the ball, we had penalties and the whole bit."

Still, the Sept. 10 loss to the Crimson Tide remains the only blemish on Penn State's record, and the Lions keep climbing in the polls, this week to No. 16 in the AP, No. 15 in the USA Today coaches poll, and No. 16 in the BCS rankings.

Even with their lofty standing in the conference, the Nittany Lions continue to have one of the worst offenses, statistically. They are ninth in both rushing and passing, 10th in total offense, 11th in scoring and third-down conversions, and last in pass efficiency.

Redd has been the offense's savior. He rushed for 137 yards Saturday to reach the 1,000-yard mark for the season.

Before going on their game-winning, 80-yard drive against the Fighting Illini, the Lions had just 139 yards of total offense. Quarterback Matt McGloin, who was 5 of 18 as he took the field to start the possession, went 4 of 6 in leading Penn State downfield.

"It's just a matter of taking pride," offensive tackle Quinn Barham said. "Even though it was a tough game up to that point and the defense had been bailing us out, we had to do something. It came at the right time. It was a crucial situation and we pulled it out."

Now comes the hard part. After a bye this week, the Nittany Lions get Nebraska in their final home game of the season. That will be followed by road contests against Ohio State and Wisconsin.

However - and here's the incredible part - they hold a 21/2-game lead in the Leaders Division following losses Saturday by No. 19 Wisconsin and Purdue.

If the Lions win two of those last three games, they will be the division's representative in the inaugural Big Ten championship game on Dec. 3 in Indianapolis.

Let us know in a month if you saw that coming.

 


Contact staff writer Joe Juliano at 215-854-4494 or jjuliano@phillynews.com.