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.)