College Football: PSU's start, reeling Badgers highlight Big Ten surprises
By Genaro C. Armas
AP Sports Writer
Joe Paterno isn't a big fan of bye weeks, and with good reason, especially this year.
Penn State might be the Big Ten's most surprising story line going into the last month of the conference schedule with a two-game lead in the loss column in the Leaders Division over Purdue, surging Ohio State and reeling Wisconsin.
While the Legends Division has a three-way logjam of one-loss teams at the top with Nebraska, Michigan and Michigan State, the Nittany Lions (5-0 Big Ten) control their own destiny to get to the inaugural league title game as the last squad unbeaten in conference play.
"I don't particularly like bye weeks at any time because I think you get out of the routine," Paterno said Tuesday. "I guess if you have to have it, this is as good a time as any to have it."
Lately, that routine involves winning -- seven straight victories since a 27-11 loss in week 2 to No. 2 Alabama.
Success hasn't been pretty, though, in Happy Valley.
The passing game very much remains a work in progress, and the offense overall is scoring 21.8 points a game. Only Minnesota is worse in the Big Ten at 18 points.
Penn State is squeaking by opponents, like the 10-7 win last week over Illinois. The Nittany Lions needed a touchdown run by Silas Redd to take the lead with 1:08 left, but couldn't breathe easy until Illini kicker Derek Dimke's 42-yard field-goal attempt bounced off the right upright as time expired.
"We were very fortunate against Illinois," Paterno said. "That darn ball bounced off the goal post when it could have bounced any other way it would have been overtime."
Another typically tight Penn State victory -- six wins have come by 10 points or less this year. They will be tested with a three-game gauntlet to end the regular season, starting with the home finale Nov. 12 against the Cornhuskers before road trips to Ohio State and Wisconsin.
The close calls and looming schedule have some national pundits and even some Penn State fans wondering: Just how good are the Nittany Lions?
"I mean, to be honest, I think as a team we recognize we don't get the respect we should," defensive tackle Devon Still said. "But we don't play for that. We play for each other. As long as we do that, we're going to come away with wins."
Purdue coach Danny Hope, at least, recognizes the accomplishments in Happy Valley.
"The teams right now that are really strong defensively are hanging on the best," Hope said. "Right now, Penn State is one of the great defensive football teams in the country."
First in scoring defense (12.4 points) in the league and third in total defense (282.3 yards), the Nittany Lions are also third against both the pass (170.4 yards) and run (111.9), thanks in large part to the disruptive, 6-foot-5 Still up front.
"They've been playing great defense for 45 years," said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, referring to Paterno's record 46 seasons as the lead Nittany Lion.
The Illinois victory gave Paterno his 409th victory, breaking the Division I career mark set by Grambling State's Eddie Robinson -- though Paterno has more pressing concerns.
While the fourth-quarter flurry against the Illini gave the offense confidence it could produce in the clutch, the Nittany Lions may need full-game production to beat the Cornhuskers, Buckeyes and Badgers.
Nebraska, thanks to its Big Ten-best rushing attack (252.1 yards), has won three straight going into this weekend's home game against Northwestern.
Penn State has lost two straight to Ohio State, though the Nittany Lions last beat the Buckeyes 13-6 in 2008 in a defensive slugfest in Columbus.
Ohio State is surging, answering Big Ten-opening losses to Michigan State and Nebraska with victories over ranked squads Illinois and Wisconsin. The Buckeyes host Indiana, 1-8, this weekend.
In Madison, the Badgers are trying to regroup after two straight late-game collapses dashed their BCS dreams. Even the Leaders Division title is a question mark now.
Wisconsin lost 37-31 to Michigan State on Oct. 22 following a deflected Hail Mary pass
Last week, the Badgers rallied for a late lead against the Buckeyes, only to lose 33-29 after a miscommunication in the secondary allowed Devin Smith to come open in the end zone and catch a 40-yard touchdown pass with 20 seconds left.
Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema has been studying the section in the Big Ten rule book on tiebreakers. It could come into play in the season finale Nov. 26 when Penn State visits Wisconsin. The two teams haven't met since 2008, when Penn State won, 48-7.
Bielema also realizes his team will need more than just what's written in the fine print if they want to challenge Penn State. Wisconsin kicks off the second half of its conference slate Saturday by hosting Purdue.
"It's really about how you play. The last two games have definitely been (bad) for us. We have to recover and play well," Bielema said. "To really put it in a nutshell, if you don't win this Saturday, nothing really matters."