Don't look now, but Penn State suddenly has a realistic shot at a championship this season.
No joke. And by "Penn State," we mean Penn State football, not volleyball or wrestling or another super-successful PSU team.
A couple of weeks ago, relatively quietly, the Big Ten said that probation-ridden Ohio State and Penn State could in fact win the Big Ten Leaders Division football title. They could be declared the division champions if they finish atop the standings.
They just couldn't represent the league in the conference championship game.
At the time, it seemed to boost Ohio State only and not roster-robbed PSU, to give the talented Buckeyes an extra dose of motivation and a genuine opportunity to beat out Wisconsin for the division title.
Now? Ohio State and especially woebegone Wisconsin aren't looking so special, are they? Both struggled mightily in home wins against underwhelming opponents Saturday.
Now? Purdue, Illinois and even Penn State - yes, Penn State - have a chance to be Leaders Division champions.
The Nittany Lions earned the first post-Joe Paterno, post-Sandusky, post-EVERYTHING victory Saturday, 34-7 over Navy.
And of course it also was the first win of the Bill O'Brien era.
No one is saying this will launch a 10-game win streak. It was a bad Navy team, and Penn State's previous opponents didn't make the Lions look good Saturday, as Virginia was destroyed 56-20 at Georgia Tech, and Ohio squeaked out a 27-24 win at Marshall.
.500 is still a nice goal for the Lions.
But, three things bode very well for PSU's chances the rest of the way:
- The team is improving. It's incremental, but it is improvement - most importantly by QB Matt McGloin (13-of-21, 231, 4 TD, 0 int) - and it should continue, barring the unforeseeable such as excess injuries.
- The schedule is favorable. The projected toughest division games - Ohio State and Wisconsin - are at home. The Lions will go on the road to play Purdue and Illinois. PSU avoids Michigan State and Michigan from the Legends Division.
- The matchups look good. PSU's biggest on-field weakness (aside from kicker/punter) is safety/the secondary, specifically with regard to third-down pass defense. None of PSU's division rivals has exhibited a strong passing game this season.
At this point, it's easy to imagine all four of the key division games - at Illinois (Sept. 29), vs. Ohio State (Oct. 27), at Purdue (Nov. 3) and vs. Wisconsin (Nov. 24) - as down-to-the-wire affairs. Several others could be too, such as vs. Northwestern (Oct. 6) and at Iowa (Oct. 20)
They're all winnable.
Of course, they're also all loseable. So loseable that at least one computer projection has PSU going 1-7 in league play, with six of the seven losses by nine points or less.
Sam Ficken will have to make kicks for PSU to win the close ones. And while Wisconsin, which lost six coaches off its staff from last season, might be in disarray now, by the end of November the Badgers should be playing better, and PSU's depth issues could be more pronounced.
Nonetheless, things look a heck of a lot brighter for Penn State after Saturday than before it.
O'Brien has shown a resourcefulness dictated by circumstances that all good offensive coaches possess. Be it situational during the game, or positional/strategic during the week, O'Brien always is looking for the best advantage. For example: Four tailbacks have at least 13 carries each this season, PSU has gone for it nine times on 4th down, and it took guts to transition QB Paul Jones, a talented athlete, to tight end.
Defensive coordinator Ted Roof has yet to show such resourcefulness.
Roof's strict sticking with a standard 4-3 defensive alignment no matter the opponent or circumstances - the PSU defense plays almost all situations straight up, as if every play is 1st-and-10, and every opponent has an equal run-pass balance - is a little confounding at this point.
We'll see how Roof evolves, but the time is coming to see improvement and development. There is a lot more talent on the Lions' defense than offense. Roof's defense needs to show the way. Penn State was fortunate Navy didn't score more, and this was a substandard Navy team.
So, Roof already finds himself sitting on the proverbial hot seat. Which will become a furnace if Temple, this week's opponent, gains 391 yards and notches 22 first downs, as Navy did.
And it will become a firing squad if PSU's second-half, 3rd-down defense, which was an abject disaster the first two games (18 conversions on 21 second-half 3rd downs - yikes!), isn't much better the rest of the way. Navy can't pass a lick, so yesterday's improvement in 3rd-down defense might just have been an aberration.
Temple is the second-straight PSU foe coming off a bye week. The Owls should play their best game of the season in Happy Valley.
If Penn State plays its best game of the season too, it will head into conference play with confidence, momentum and a real opportunity to shock the world and claim the Leaders Division title this season.
Not a likelihood, by any means, but a realistic chance.
For the players, after everything that has transpired, that's more than enough.
Military Appreciation Day seemed to be a grand success. Attendance was higher than for the season opener - 98,792 vs. 97,186 - and the weather ideal. Coming right after the anniversary for 9/11, the timing was great, too.
Here's how one veteran PSU season-ticket holder described things at Beaver Stadium on Saturday:
"I witnessed some of the greatest sportsmanship I have seen at a college football game since I was a kid. The Blue Band played Anchors Away at the beginning, and the Navy football players got a standing ovation as they returned to Beaver Stadium for the first time since 1974. Then, at the conclusion of the game, the Penn State players went and saluted the players and the Midshipmen in the stadium as the Navy Band played their Alma Mater. Finally, the Navy players joined the Penn State players at the other side of the stadium and joined them as the Blue Band played the Penn State Alma Mater.
It was truly beautiful and showed that good sportsmanship and respect is what all of this should be about . . . Something that had always defined Penn State."
That's good stuff.
Hopefully PSU will do it again, or with some regularity. Perhaps a Military Appreciation Day could be scheduled every other season, on a rotating basis with Navy, Army and Air Force?
The future PSU schedules appear to have no such events currently planned, with no games against the military academies. Hopefully that will change.
Stability continues to be most important for the PSU football team in the wake of the unprecedented offseason upheaval.
Which made the departures last week of starting WR Shawney Kersey and primary backup kicker Matt Marcincin moderately alarming.
Of course, every time any player leaves the team, there are unique circumstances - in other words, who knows what is going on in Kersey's and Marcincin's lives that caused them to give up football at PSU? It could be anything, and without more information - both left for "personal reasons" - there's not too much that can be inferred.
But it was very surprising to see someone like Kersey, a veteran who had figure prominently in the gameplan this season, leave the team after two games, as well as a backup (Marcincin) who, given the struggles of the starting kicker Ficken, might have been one more missed Ficken kick away from getting an opportunity.
Penn State can ill afford such departures considering its depleted roster and the general instability created by the NCAA sanctions.
That said, the on-the-field losses can be mitigated. Several other receivers can fill Kersey's role - though none are as fast or experienced as Kersey - and did so Saturday, notably junior Brandon Moseby-Felder and true freshman Trevor Williams. And if Ficken comes around, Marcincin, a former walk-on, may never have played anyway.