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Best in the Big Ten

Scott Haynes, College Football Senior Editor

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Just a few short weeks ago, the Big Ten was Ohio State's conference to lose. Fast forward just one month, and it isn't the Buckeyes that have a stranglehold on the Big Ten, but rather Penn State that has shown the kind of dominant play on both sides of the football that not only wins conference crowns, but perhaps much more.

Non-conference opponents like Coastal Carolina, Syracuse and Temple have done little in terms of giving insight into just how good Penn State is, but a 45-14 whipping of Oregon State, which knocked off USC last week, and a 38-24 victory over a good Illinois team to kick off Big Ten action are a little more telling.

Lavishing his team with praise is just not how Joe Paterno goes about his business, but the competitiveness of the Illini last week is something JoePa believes will make his team better.

"I have been saying all along that I wouldn't know how good we were until we got into a tough football game; one with a little back and forth to it and that we couldn't do everything we wanted to. That is as important as the record because I think we can now play with a little more assurance."

So, what is it about this team that has Happy Valley living up to its name this year?

Joe Paterno's squad is averaging almost 50 points per game (49.8), on 515.2 yards of total offense.
The last couple of seasons, the Penn State offense was run by a pocket-passer in Anthony Morelli. The team is now under the leadership of the more athletic Daryll Clark, and that has been a real key in the offense's fast start.

Penn State is putting up ridiculous numbers thus far, averaging almost 50 points per game (49.8), on 515.2 yards of total offense. Balance is the key, with the Nittany Lions chewing up 267.6 yards per game on the ground and another 247.6 through the air.

Clark, a 6-2, 231-pound junior, has been an efficient passer, completing over 63 percent of his passes, with a 9-to-1 TD-to-INT ratio. His elusiveness in the pocket is apparent as well, as Clark is averaging 5.7 yards per carry with an additional three TDs to his credit.

It certainly helps having one of the nation's deepest receiving pools to rely upon. This year's wideout corps rivals any in Penn State's history. Jordan Norwood has become the go-to-guy downfield. He currently leads the team in receptions (18), receiving yards (318) and TD catches (4), and that is despite missing the Illinois game with a hamstring injury.

Norwood is not alone in putting fear in opposing secondaries, as Deon Butler (16 receptions, for 272 yards, two TDs) and Derrick Williams (14 receptions, for 188 yards, one TD) can get it done as well.

Regarded as the top high school prospect in the country when he came to State College a few years ago, Williams has shown brief flashes of brilliance, but never really became the game-breaker he was touted to be. That was, of course, until last week, as he erupted against the Illini for 241 all-purpose yards, scoring three TDs, one rushing, one receiving and a third on a 94-yard kickoff return. Paterno has been waiting a long time for that kind of production from Williams.

"This is really the first chance that he has had to break out," Paterno continued. "In fact, I told him the other day that it's about time that he break out and have a real big game. He had a big day. He is a heck of an athlete and he is a heck of a competitor."

The passing game is aided by the strong running of tailback Evan Royster, who has also gotten off to a fast start. The 6-1, 212-pound sophomore is averaging almost eight yards per carry (7.8) and is responsible for seven of the team's 19 rushing scores in the first five games.

If the Penn State offense doesn't get you (and it usually does), the defense will. The Nittany Lions have battled some adversity on this side of the football, with the loss of Butkus Award candidate Sean Lee before the season began and the early suspension of All-Big Ten rush end Maurice Evans, but others have stepped up and met the challenge head on.

Linebacker Navorro Bowman certainly comes to mind. He has really stood out thus far, leading the team in tackles (45), with 5.5 TFLs, three sacks, one INT and two forced fumbles.

Evans finished with 12.5 sacks last season and was poised for another big year before off-the-field problems derailed the start of the season for the 6-2, 265-pounder. Penn State's pass rush hasn't suffered though (15 sacks), as again, others have stepped in and delivered, namely, sophomore end Aaron Maybin (8.0 TFLs, 6.0 sacks) and senior end/tackle Josh Gaines (5.0 TFLs, 3.0 sacks). With Evans returning to the field against Illinois, this could now be one of the best defensive fronts in the nation.

Of course, all this talent means nothing without the proper leadership on the sideline, and Paterno has seen and done it all in his 43 years at the helm at Penn State. He is the all-time leader in Division I-A victories (377), bowl appearances (34) and bowl victories (23), including two national titles (1982, 86).

The Big Ten slate will ultimately tell the tale the rest of the way, with road trips to Purdue, Wisconsin and Ohio State coming up, as well as Michigan and Michigan State both coming to University Park.

Still, with the way Penn State is playing right now, you have to believe the Nittany Lions can get the job done and not only capture the Big Ten crown, but earn a trip to Miami after the New Year.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Scott Haynes at shaynes@sportsnetwork.com.
Scott Haynes
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