Penn State's ride in the Top Five came crashing to a halt, at least for now, with last week's 21-10 loss to Iowa.
The rain-soaked setback, in front of a full Beaver Stadium White Out, no less, dropped PSU to 3-1 and from fifth to 15th in the Associated Press poll (13th in the USA Today/Coaches Poll).
That's not to say the Nittany Lions won't have a chance to make amends and work their way back up the national rankings, especially with the way Top 10 teams have been taking a tumble this season to date. The old line of reasoning with polls is, if you're going to lose, then lose early so you have time to climb back into contention.
In his press conference this week, Joe Paterno made reference to his 1982 team, led by quarterback Todd Blackledge and running back Curt Warner, which, like this year's Lions did against the Hawkeyes, sustained a blocked punt in a game that led to a loss (in that case, it was at Alabama). The '82 Lions regrouped from the loss and went on to beat Georgia in the Sugar Bowl for Paterno's first national championship.
An early loss doesn't necessarily have to be fatal. It's how a team reacts to it that matters.
In the wake of the loss to the Hawkeyes, who appear to have the Lions' number after winning seven of the last eight meetings, PSU has been getting criticized more than ever for playing a less than formidable early schedule.
There's certainly truth to the fact that a September slate with Akron, Syracuse and Temple, all in Happy Valley, didn't provide much of a challenge. At least one writer accused PSU of loading up on cupcakes so Paterno can keep his lead over Bobby Bowden in the race for winningest Division I coach (not that Florida State hasn't ever played its share of teams outside of the Top 20 over the years, of course).
Granted, Iowa was a step up in competition, but what the criticism ignores is that Penn State didn't lose to the Hawkeyes because it played Akron, Syracuse and Temple. A look at the Lions' second half drive chart shows the real problem: interception, missed field goal, blocked punt for TD, interception, fumble, interception. Four turnovers is not going to win many games.
When Iowa's Adrian Clayborn blocked Jeremy Boone's punt and returned it for a TD, Iowa's lead was just one point at 11-10 and there was still 12:21 remaining in the game, plenty of time to come back. Even after an interception led to an Adam Robinson TD, the difference was still just eight, and the Lions were driving for a shot at tying the score until Evan Royster had the ball knocked loose on a run inside the Iowa 20, with the Hawkeyes recovering.
After Penn State took a quick 10-0 first quarter lead, it self-destructed on offense and special teams. Iowa won the battle up front and was able to put enough heat on QB Daryll Clark to force him into a career-high three pick-offs. The Lions tried to stem the tide in the trenches by replacing tackle DeOn'tae Pannell with Nerraw McCormack, but it wasn't enough to hold off the Hawkeye rush. Still, Paterno felt he saw improvement in his offensive line.
The Lion defense played well enough to win the game, but with Iowa taking advantage of the field position battle, there was only so much that could be asked of the D. Navorro Bowman returned to the line-up and looked strong at linebacker, as did Josh Hull. Both had 13 tackles Sean Lee didn't play due to a sprained knee and is listed as possible for this week; Paterno said Lee is day to day.
The loss may have let the wind out of the Lions' sails for the moment, but Paterno tried to be upbeat in camp this week.
"I'm disappointed in that we didn't win the football game, but I'm not discouraged," said Paterno. "I will be if we can't eliminate the putting the ball on the ground an not catching it in the clutch and things like that. Yeah, then Ill start to get upset. But, I think that we played tough and we got licked."
The loss to Iowa makes this a criticial week for the Lions, as they look to regroup when they travel to Champaign for their first road game of the season against Illinois in a 3:30 p.m. kickoff on ABC/ESPN. Maybe it's good that PSU has gotten out of Dodge City for a week.
While the prospect of facing quarterback Juice Williams can make defensive coordinators nervous, if there's a time to take on the Fighting Illini, it is now. Embattled coach Ron Zook's squad is struggling with a 1-2 start and is coming into this afternoon off a 30-0 shellacking by Ohio State last week. There have been calls for Zook's head from Illini fans, but that is nothing new for Zook, who dealt with it all before when he replaced Steve Spurrier at Florida.
The Lions have a 13-3 all-time record against the Illini and won 38-24 last year at Beaver Stadium, but with the offense out of rhythm, PSU will need to get back on track so that its defense won't have to spend extra series on the field against Juice and dangerous receiver Arrelious Benn.
So far, however, the Illini attack has lacked some juice. If one takes away a 45-17 win over Illinois State, the Illini offense has scored just nine points in losses to the Buckeyes and Missouri (37-9). The multi-dimensional Williams has completed 31 of 53 passes for 256 yards with no TDs against three interceptions. He is also the Illini's second leading rusher with 94 yards, behind Jason Ford (16-157). Daniel Dufrene also gets carries. The Illini average 192 yards rushing per game, third in the Big Ten so far.
Benn, one of the nation's top pass catchers and kick returners, has also endured a scoring drought, as he had just five catches for 42 yards. Other targets for Juice are junior receiver Jarred Fayson and tight end Michael Hoomanawanui.
Defensively, the leading tacklers are linebacker Ian Thomas (24), strong safety Garrett Edwards (22) and cornerback Tavon Wilson (18). Starting middle linebacker Martez Wilson is out for the season due to a herniated disc injury and had surgery this week. Senior defensive end Doug Pilcher is on the watch list for the Ted Hendricks Award and could provide a test for the Lions' rebuilding offensive line.
Penn State's last visit to Illinois resulted in a 27-20 loss two years ago, so the Lions will need to shake off the Iowa debacle if they want to avoid an 0-2 Big Ten start.
"We've got to find out if we've got some fighters," said Paterno. "It's as simple as that. If you get knocked down, you feel sorry for yourself. You get up angry. I think they'll be angry."
NITTANY LINES - Next week's non-league game at home against Eastern Illinois will be a 12 noon start and televised by ESPN Classic, the university has announced ... the Iowa loss snapped PSU's 11-game home winning streak, as well as puncturing hols in the "Whitehouse" mystique ... Derek Moye and Chaz Powell each have 15 receptions to lead the PSU receiving corps ... defensively, PSU is allowing just 10.2 points, 75.5 yards rushing and 233.8 yards of total offense per game and hasn't given up a TD in the first half all season ... Illinois is having an "Orange Out" for today's game, countering the Lions' White Out of last year vs. the Illini.