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October 13, 2008

Monday with Mike: Time to believe in Penn State

RELATED: Week 7: What We Learned | Dienhart's Week 7 Awards

Fifteen teams headed into the weekend unbeaten, and five saw their perfect seasons go by the wayside, including three of the nation's top four teams LSU, Missouri and Oklahoma.

One of those teams that remained perfect is Penn State. Coach Joe Paterno went into this season with his job in jeopardy, and his team has responded in such a way that the Nittany Lions are the Big Ten's only realistic hope to play for the national title.

Saturday's 48-7 evisceration of host Wisconsin moved the Nittany Lions to 7-0 and into the top five in the polls. Penn State which won on the road against a ranked opponent for the first time since 2002 scored three second-quarter touchdowns to take a 24-7 halftime lead, then turned it into cakewalk with 17 more points in the third period.

"I thought we'd win, but anybody who thought we'd win by 41 hasn't been in the game very long," Paterno told reporters after the game.

Wisconsin was in desperation mode after back-to-back losses to Michigan and Ohio State. At least the Badgers coughed up leads in those games. Against the Nittany Lions, they fell behind 17-0 and never really were in it. It was the most lopsided loss for the Badgers since 1989.

"This was a statement game for us," said Penn State quarterback Daryll Clark, who threw for 244 yards and a touchdown and also scored on two short runs. "People still don't believe we can do this."

People should believe now. The Nittany Lions, who are 7-0 for the first time since 1999, have two tough games left Oct. 25 at Ohio State and Nov. 22 at home against Michigan State.

THE PERFECT 10
Here's a look at the remaining 10 unbeaten teams. Of the 10, five (Ball State, Boise State, BYU, Tulsa and Utah) are from non-"Big Six" leagues, which means they have no realistic shot at the national title.
Alabama 6-0
SATURDAY: Idle.
TOUGHEST GAME: Nov. 8 at LSU.
Ball State 7-0
SATURDAY: d. Western Kentucky 24-7.
TOUGHEST GAME: Nov. 19 at Central Michigan.
Boise State 5-0
SATURDAY: d. Southern Miss 24-7.
TOUGHEST GAME: Oct. 24 at San Jose State.
BYU 6-0
SATURDAY: d. New Mexico 21-3.
TOUGHEST GAME: Nov. 22 at Utah.
Oklahoma State 6-0
SATURDAY: d. Missouri 28-23.
TOUGHEST GAME: Oct. 25 at Texas.
Penn State 7-0
SATURDAY: d. Wisconsin 48-7.
TOUGHEST GAME: Oct. 25 at Ohio State.
Texas 6-0
SATURDAY: d. Oklahoma 45-35.
TOUGHEST GAME: Nov. 1 at Texas Tech.
Texas Tech 6-0
SATURDAY: d. Nebraska 37-31 (OT).
TOUGHEST GAME: Nov. 22 at Oklahoma.
Tulsa 6-0
SATURDAY: d. SMU 37-31.
TOUGHEST GAME: Nov. 1 at Arkansas.
Utah 7-0
SATURDAY: d. Wyoming 40-7.
TOUGHEST GAME: Nov. 22 vs. BYU.
The Nittany Lions are ninth in the nation in total offense, a shock considering the preseason questions at quarterback and tailback. But Clark (10 touchdown passes, two interceptions) and sophomore tailback Evan Royster (719 yards, nine touchdowns) have answered those questions, and wide receivers Deon Butler, Jordan Norwood and Derrick Williams who were underutilized in the past have combined for 66 catches for 1,024 yards and eight touchdowns.

Coordinator Galen Hall has mixed and matched nicely. For instance, Wisconsin tried to take away the Nittany Lions' running game Saturday, so Hall unleashed Clark - who threw for a season-high 244 yards. Clark also ran for two short scores, giving him six scoring runs this season.

The Nittany Lions were supposed to be good defensively, and they are. They're eighth overall and 11th against the run even though they are somewhat thin at linebacker (because of an injury to Sean Lee) and along the line (because of some behavior-related dismissals).

The best news for the Nittany Lions is that they don't really play any good offensive teams the rest of the way. Michigan State can run, but quarterback Brian Hoyer is inconsistent as a passer. Ohio State is 94th nationally in total offense. Michigan can't get out of its own way on offense. Iowa can't throw effectively. And Indiana doesn't have the athletes to hang with Penn State.

Can this team go unbeaten? If it wins in Columbus, it should finish 12-0. And imagine this scenario: Paterno, at the helm of an unbeaten team, announces that he'll retire after the national title game.

TEXAS TECH STILL HAS ISSUES

Admit it: After seeing Nebraska's defense shredded the past two weeks, you thought host Texas Tech was going to pile on the points Saturday against the Huskers. Instead, Tech needed overtime to edge a Huskers team coming off a 35-point home loss to Missouri.

The key play was Tech going for it on fourth-and-4 from the 36 with 4:22 left and the score tied at 24.

Uhh, that was Tech's own 36.

It appeared as if Tech was trying to draw Nebraska offside, especially when Red Raiders quarterback Graham Harrell tried a hard count. Nebraska's defense looked to visibly relax when no one jumped offside, and when the ball was snapped, Michael Crabtree blew past Nebraska cornerback Armando Murillo and ended up with a 47-yard reception.

Tech scored on the drive, but Nebraska answered to send the game into overtime. The win eventually was sealed when Tech cornerback Jamar Wall picked off a Joe Ganz pass.

That was one of the few plays made by Tech's defense, which couldn't get the Huskers' offense off the field. Nebraska had 471 yards and a huge time of possession advantage (40:12 to 19:48). The Huskers also were 7-for-12 on third down and scored on all five of their chances in the red zone.

"Defensively, we tried to make too much happen," Tech coach Mike Leach said afterward. "We tried to play perfect, and we just need to make routine plays."

Six games into the season, questions remain about Tech's defense - which also was shredded by Nevada earlier in the season and has allowed three teams to run at least 80 plays from scrimmage. Obviously, Tech's high-powered offense means the Red Raiders can score with anybody. Eventually, though, Tech is going to play teams that are solid on both sides of the ball that hasn't happened yet. Given Tech's recent history, you have to think the defense will falter at least once or twice during a four-game stretch that has Tech playing Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma.

WOLVERINES ARE SINKING

Michigan (2-4) is in unfamiliar territory. After falling 13-10 to a horrible Toledo team at home Saturday, the Wolverines are off to their worst start since 1967 and may need a miracle to extend their streak of playing in a bowl to 34 consecutive seasons.

They have six games left, with all but one against a team with a winning record. First up is a visit to Penn State (7-0) next week, followed by a home game against Michigan State (6-1). Then comes a "breather" at Purdue (2-4) before Michigan closes out the season with a trip to Minnesota (6-1), a home game against Northwestern (5-1) and a visit to Ohio State (6-1).

From here, that looks like a 5-7 record at best.

"We're kind of at a crossroads," linebacker Obinna Ezeh said after the stunning loss to Toledo. "We could either go downhill or we can hang tough and weather this storm."

Toledo came in 1-4, including a 35-16 home loss to Florida International. In other words, Michigan managed just 290 yards and 10 points at home against a defense that gave up 35 points to a middling team from the Sun Belt Conference.

The sad part for the Wolverines is the 290 yards is basically its season average. Michigan is averaging 291.5 yards per game, which is 109th nationally. The biggest problem is there is no quarterback on the roster who can effectively run coach Rich Rodriguez's spread offense.

"I'm just extremely disappointed and embarrassed," Rodriguez said after the game though he easily could have been talking about how the season has gone.

An aside: Toledo wide receiver Nick Moore caught 20 passes for 162 yards. That's three catches shy of the one-game NCAA record, set by UNLV's Randy Gatewood in 1994.

GRID BITS

Are you looking for a reason North Carolina is 5-1 and in the top 25? Check out the Tar Heels' turnover margin. UNC is at plus-11 after forcing five turnovers and committing none in its victory over Notre Dame on Saturday. The Heels lead the nation with 14 interceptions and have four fumble recoveries after coming up with three against the Irish. That makes up for an offense that ranks just 91st in the nation at 325.5 yards per game. The Heels' only loss is a three-point setback against Virginia Tech where they blew a 14-0 lead. UNC plays at suddenly hot Virginia this week.

Army did not complete a pass (0-for-3) in its 17-13 victory over Eastern Michigan; it ran 59 times for 341 yards and two touchdowns. The Black Knights (2-4) are 5-for-13 throwing the ball in their past three games and 25-for-52 for the season.

Purdue's Curtis Painter threw for 228 yards (six more than Ohio State had in total offense) in the Boilermakers' 16-3 loss at Ohio State. He has 10,216 yards and becomes the fourth Big Ten quarterback to reach the 10,000-yard plateau, joining Purdue's Drew Brees, Northwestern's Brett Basanez and Iowa's Chuck Long.

UNDER-THE-RADAR GAMES
At first glance, these games don't jump out at you. But upon further review, they look a whole lot more interesting.
BYU at TCU, 8 p.m. Thursday: Both played Saturday, so each will have a quick turnaround. This looks like the last road block for BYU before it plays at Utah in the regular-season finale. TCU is strong defensively, but BYU's passing attack has to be a cause for concern considering how Oklahoma torched the Horned Frogs' secondary. TCU (6-1) hasn't given up a point in the fourth quarter this season.
LSU at South Carolina, 8 p.m. Saturday: The Gamecocks quietly have gotten back on track. The offense remains inconsistent, but a stingy defense could cause problems for an LSU team coming off a beatdown at Florida. If Stephen Garcia continues his maturation process on and off the field Steve Spurrier might just have himself a quarterback.
Virginia Tech at Boston College, 8 p.m. Saturday: Boston College is in the mix in the ACC Atlantic Division race, but the schedule begins to get tougher for the Eagles with this one. Virginia Tech looks like the class of the ACC Coastal Division. But truth be told, the ACC as a whole doesn't look that strong.
Miami's offense continues to struggle. The Hurricanes beat UCF 20-14 but managed just 216 yards of offense against a team that came in allowing 362.8 yards per game. Miami punted 11 times, threw three interceptions, was 2-for-17 on third down and allowed three sacks. Miami surrendered just 78 total yards, but an interception return for a touchdown and a kickoff return for a touchdown enabled UCF to stay in the game. "Offensively, we have some things we have to correct," Miami coach Randy Shannon said afterward. One thing for sure that needs work is cutting down on mistakes. Quarterback Robert Marve has thrown seven interceptions and four touchdown passes in the past three games. Miami (3-3) plays at Duke (3-2) this week.

Colorado's offense ranks at the bottom of the Big 12, and inconsistent play from quarterback Cody Hawkins is a main culprit. Hawkins has 11 touchdown passes and six interceptions, but he has completed just 41.8 percent of his passes (38-for-91) in the past three games. Backup Matt Ballenger has seen time in each of the past two weeks and is 8-for-12 for 118 yards and a touchdown. Ballenger played most of the fourth quarter in Saturday's loss at Kansas, but coach Dan Hawkins who also is Cody's dad said his son would start this week against Kansas State, which has been atrocious on defense.

If Washington State coach Paul Wulff has been having nightmares about his defense, who could blame him? The Cougars were routed 66-13 by Oregon State on Saturday. It's the third time this season the Cougars have given up 60-plus points in a Pac-10 game and USC is next on the schedule. Washington State is 118th in the nation in scoring defense, with Idaho 119th and North Texas 120th. North Texas has given up at least 41 points in all six of its games and at least 56 in three games. Plus, Idaho and North Texas have given up at least 70 once each.

Auburn's offense seems to be regressing. The Tigers opened the season with a 406-yard game against Louisiana-Monroe, then followed that up with 380 against Southern Miss, 315 against Mississippi State, 320 against LSU, 226 against Tennessee, 208 against Vanderbilt and 193 against Arkansas. The Tigers have six rushing touchdowns this season but just two in their past five games.

There have been 82 games matching Division I-A teams against I-AA opponents or, as the NCAA insists on saying, Football Bowl Subdivision teams and Football Championship Subdivision teams. The big guys are 80-2; the losers have been San Diego State (to Cal Poly in Week One) and Army (to New Hampshire in Week Two).

The first BCS standings of the season come out Oct. 19.

RELATED: Week 7: What We Learned | Dienhart's Week 7 Awards

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be heard on Rivals Radio every Wednesday at 8:30 a.m. ET and can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.



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