The Nittany Lions now have to win on the road against the league's best team, Wisconsin, to reach the inaugural Big Ten title game
Jay Paterno had a clever response when asked what he thought of the Big Ten removing his father's name from the league championship trophy.
We'll just have to put it back on there, JayPa said. Win the title, grab the trophy and affix a Post-it note with Joe Paterno's name on it.
The Lions have a chance to do that.
Technically, Penn State (9-2, 6-1) didn't need to win Saturday at Ohio State (6-5, 3-4) to achieve that goal. Because Wisconsin had defeated Illinois earlier in the day, it meant that win or lose in the Horseshoe, PSU still needed a win next week in Madison to capture the Leaders Division.
But psychologically the Lions absolutely, positively had to win.
Their world had spiraled into the deepest depths of despair: The emotional wringer of the Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. The confusion and shock of Joe Paterno's firing. The surreal Senior Day scene and wrenching narrow loss to Nebraska. And the news late last week that the 84-year-old Paterno has lung cancer. All while the Sandusky saga continues to be front-page news nationally.
Another loss, to Ohio State, and the Lions would have caved. For good.
Instead they summoned a steely resolve to salvage the season.
Behind interim coach Tom Bradley, Penn State defeated the Buckeyes 20-14 with a combination of first-half offensive gumption (not second half, more on that later) and a typically awesome second-half defensive effort - a shutout - to give themselves the tempering necessary to have a chance at Wisconsin (9-2, 5-2).
Feeling good about themselves again - though OSU had struggled the season, their lone home loss was 10-7 to Michigan State - a hardened Lions squad now has a puncher's chance against the Badgers, who have been absolutely spectacular at home this season.
Wisconsin's closest home game thus far is a 31-point thrashing of Nebraska. Yikes. The line opened with PSU a 15-point underdog.
PSU's BOWL SCENARIOS IMPROVE
There's also this huge booster shot: With the upset win - the Lions were a 7-point underdog and had won only once in nine Big Ten trips to Columbus - Penn State played its way out of the 8th and final Big Ten bowl affiliation, the bottom-of-the-barrel Little Caesars Pizza Bowl in Detroit, and opened up much better possibilities.
By getting their ninth win, the Lions ensured that all of the seven-win teams in the Big Ten won't be able to leapfrog them in the Big Ten's bowl selection process.
(Due to PSU's post-Sandusky scandal stature, any bowl that can bypass selecting Penn State is likely to do so, because almighty sponsors want nothing to do with the toxic school.)
As it stands right now, any conference teams with eight wins or more could be selected ahead of PSU for a bowl, and there will be only five such teams at most, and possibly four.
So if PSU loses to Wisconsin, the Lions likely could end up playing a Big 12 team in the Meineke Car Care Bowl (Houston, Big Ten bowl No. 6), or an SEC team in the Gator Bowl (Jacksonville, Big Ten No. 5)
Beats the heck out of the pizza bowl in Detroit vs. a Mid-American Conference opponent.
If PSU defeats Wisconsin (to get to 10 wins) but loses to Michigan State, then the Insight Bowl (Tempe, Big Ten No. 4) also is in play, vs. a Big 12 team. And if the Big Ten squeezes a second team into a BCS bowl - college football savant Phil Steele is projecting Michigan to get an at-large BCS bid - then PSU moves up another notch.
UPDATE: Oops, RFBS was relying on outdated information re: the aforementioned bowl scenarios. The rule about a team needing to be within one win of another eligible team in order to be selected for a given bowl only applies to the Capital One and Outback Bowls. The remaining Big Ten affiliated bowls - Insight, Gator, Meineke Care Care, Ticket City and Little Caesers Pizza Bowl - all can select any bowl-eligible Big Ten team. Which means that if Penn State doesn't reach the Big Ten title game, it very well could get shuffled well down the pecking order, below 7-5 and even 6-6 teams, despite a 9-3 record. Remember, it's not about who deserves what, it's about sponsors, revenue (ticket sales and TV ratings) and perception.
Of course if the Lions defeat Wisconsin and Michigan State to win the Big Ten crown they would receive the coveted Rose Bowl bid.
THEY DID IT! THE PLAY-CALLING WAS MUCH BETTER ... FOR ALMOST A HALF
How did Penn State beat Ohio State?
- Excellent special teams, specifically much-improved field-position punting, which had been atrocious this season.
- Typical stellar second-half defense. Senior DE Jack Crawford, who has gone from overrated to underrated in the past year-plus, was superb.
- And by attacking on offense, calling plays with confidence in the skill players, unlike at any time this season, for almost the entire first half.
They mixed up the play calls. They used quick-set passes and play-action rollouts to minimize QB Matt McGloin's weaknesses. They went up-tempo. They incorporated a new twist with the Wildcat/option featuring Curtis Drake and Bill Belton, and used it liberally throughout the game. They mixed up the running plays and the running backs.
They actually tried to maximize their chances of moving the ball, which PSU hasn't done all season. And the results were stunning: A Penn State team that averaged less than 9 points in its previous nine trips to Columbus, and scored 16 or fewer points five times in 2011 (think about those factoids for a minute, let them simmer in the juices of ineptitude) rang up 20 points and 254 yards in the first half alone.
At Ohio State. It was unprecedented.
Then, pffft - the air came out of the ball. In the middle of the second quarter, McGloin threw a bad pass that ricocheted off a receiver and/or fast-closing defender and was picked off. Ohio State then scored a touchdown to cut it to 17-14.
And that was it: JayPa and Hall packed up the offense and went home. They completely stopped attacking. And the results were stunning in the opposite direction - zero points and 73 yards after intermission.
The classic OSU goal-line stand in the third quarter was a case study in lack of imagination and vintage 2011 PSU football. It kept the score at 20-14, and kept things hairy the rest of the game against a Buckeyes squad uplifted by star WR DeVier Posey playing for the first time this season.
But as usual, the PSU defense came through.
That won't happen next week. Wisconsin's offense is much, much better than Ohio State's. It won't falter if given so many opportunities.
QB Russell Wilson leads the nation in pass efficiency. RB Montee Ball leads the nation in touchdowns. That's an incredible 1-2 offensive punch. Enough said.
HOW TO SHOCK THE WORLD AND WIN AT WISCONSIN IN BIG TEN "SEMIFINAL"
Let your hands go.
That's what boxing trainer's say when their fighter is being too cautious, not punching enough. Or when things are getting desperate, when their fighter needs to get his opponent to back off, needs to make his opponent respect him.
Let your hands go! Throw punches, throw combinations, take the offensive.
Let your hands go. Let your hands go!
It's exactly what PSU needs to do on offense against Wisconsin. And not for 25 minutes, as the Lions did so well against Ohio State. But for all 60 minutes.
Wisconsin's offense is far too good, far too balanced, far too powerful late in the game, to ask the PSU defense to thwart them time and again in the second half, as the Lions D has done all season.
The way to win is to make them respect what you can do on offense. Score some points, and keep your defense off the field.
Make them uncertain. Put them on their heels. Make them reconsider their defensive calls. Their personnel, their formations.
Give them pause.
Wisconsin's defense is good, not great. On Senior Day in Madison with the Big Ten title game berth on the line, the Badgers defense will crank it up to very good. But it's not great, just good.
If Penn State does exactly what it did against Ohio State, but does it for the entire game, the Lions can win.
The onus is on JayPa and Hall. They must call plays with confidence. They can't sit on a lead, or feel comfortable if PSU is within seven. They can't take their foot off the throttle, or momentum will be lost, possibly for good.
They need to let their hands go. And keep firing away, with lefts and rights, over and over.