September 6, 2008

Big win raises expectations at Penn State

Penn State 45, Oregon State 14: Recap | Box score

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. We preface this story with a note of caution.

Coastal Carolina never had faced a Division I-A program in its brief football history before coming to Penn State last weekend. Oregon State is a notoriously slow-starting team that had to replace its entire front seven on defense this season.

Now that those disclaimers are out of the way, we must acknowledge that Penn State has spent the last two weeks doing a pretty fair impression of the 2005 team that won the Orange Bowl and finished third in the national rankings.

In fact, its offense might be better than that Big Ten championship squad.

Penn State scored 35 points first-half points for the second consecutive week Saturday before coasting to a 45-14 victory over visiting Oregon State. Penn State hadn't scored that many first-half points in its opening two games of the season since 1994, when the Nittany Lions scored a school-record 526 points while going unbeaten.

No wonder Penn State coach Joe Paterno already finds himself struggling to temper expectations.

"Somebody said something to me coming off the field, 'Boy, you've got a good-looking team,' '' Paterno said. "I can't get excited until we've got some adversity. When these guys have to do some things when things aren't going right, maybe win on the road, I don't know yet. But to compare them to the '94 team right now would be very, very 'presumptuous' isn't the word I want now, but I think it would be much too early."

The comparisons may be early, but they're certainly understandable after the way Penn State performed the last two weeks.

After reaching the end zone nine times out of 11 possessions in a season-opening 66-10 thrashing of Coastal Carolina, the Nittany Lions scored touchdowns on six of their first nine drives against Oregon State.

And they could have been better. One of those three scoreless drives started with only 17 seconds left before halftime. Another series failed to produce points only because Evan Royster fumbled at Oregon State's 1-yard line.

Penn State has come a long way since ranking seventh in the Big Ten in total offense a year ago. Then again, perhaps this early season onslaught shouldn't have come as much of a surprise.

"I think we had very high expectations, and we still do," said Jordan Norwood, who caught eight passes for 116 yards and a touchdown. "We thought we could win every game and put a lot of points on the board. So far, so good."

PENN ST. 45, OREGON ST. 14
WHAT HAPPENED
Penn State scored touchdowns on five of its first six possessions to breeze past Oregon State 45-14. Evan Royster ran for three first-half touchdowns, while Daryll Clark threw two touchdown passes and ran for a third score. True freshman Jacquizz Rodgers rushed for 99 yards and scored both of Oregon State's touchdowns.
OFFENSIVE PLAYERS OF THE GAME
Take your pick. Royster rushed for a career-high 141 yards. Jordan Norwood caught eight passes for 116 yards and a Penn State touchdown. But we'll go with Clark, who went 14 of 23 for 215 yards through the air and rushed for 61 yards on five carries.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE GAME
Penn State linebacker Tyrell Sales recorded a game-high 10 tackles, including nine solos. Defensive ends Josh Gaines and Aaron Maybin also deserve credit, as each recorded a sack and helped Penn State overcome the loss of suspended All-America candidate Maurice Evans.
TURNING POINT
After Penn State's opening kickoff went out of bounds, Oregon State quarterback Lyle Moevao threw three consecutive short completions to give the Beavers fourth-and-1 from their 49-yard line. Instead of going for the first down, Oregon State coach Mike Riley chose to punt. Penn State went on to score touchdowns on five of its first six possessions to put the game out of reach early.
KEY INJURIES
Penn State linebacker Jerome Hayes injured his left knee in the fourth quarter. Penn State coach Joe Paterno said afterward he believes Hayes damaged his anterior cruciate ligament and will miss the rest of the season, though nothing is official yet. Hayes missed the second half of the 2007 season with a torn ACL in his right knee.
ETC.
Penn State tight end Andrew Quarless dressed for Saturday's game, though he didn't play. Paterno had announced earlier in the week that he was suspending Quarless, Evans and defensive tackle Abe Koroma for the Oregon State game. Police reported finding marijuana in their apartment, though no charges have been filed in the case. Paterno wouldn't comment further on the matter Saturday. Oregon State starting linebacker Keith Pankey and reserve tight end Kevin Pankey are the twin sons of Irv Pankey, who played guard at Penn State from 1977-79 and earned All-America honors. Paterno said he didn't think Penn State's fake punt in the fourth quarter was intentional. Penn State led 45-14 at the time. "I think that was just a little foul-up," Paterno said. This marked the first time Penn State and Oregon State had faced each other. Oregon State was the last Pac-10 team that Penn State hadn't played. Penn State's 111 combined points are its most through the first two games of a season since the 1999 team also scored 111. Penn State has produced 16 plays of at least 20 yards so far this season.

Norwood and Co. had good reason to feel confident heading into the season.

Standout center A.Q. Shipley anchored an offensive line that returns four starters. The Nittany Lions also brought back their top three receivers from a year ago: Deon Butler, Derrick Williams and Norwood.

The biggest change was in the backfield, where the Nittany Lions had to replace two-year starting quarterback Anthony Morelli and 1,329-yard rusher Rodney Kinlaw.

They ended up with upgrades at both spots.

Royster is the first player in Joe Paterno's 43-year coaching tenure to rush for six touchdowns in the first two games of a season. He rushed for 141 yards and three touchdowns Saturday on only 17 carries.

"He's a big back who's capable of the big play," Penn State left guard Rich Ohrnberger said. "He's a powerful runner inside and he can make guys miss when he's outside. He's the total package."

Daryll Clark, who has completed more than two-thirds of his passes so far, provides the versatility Morelli lacked the last two seasons. Clark didn't carry the ball once against Coastal Carolina, but he made up for that Saturday by running for 61 yards and a touchdown on only five attempts.

Nobody ever doubted Clark's mobility. The question was whether he had the passing ability to keep defenses honest. Clark ran the ball 12 times and attempted only six attempts while backing up Morelli last year. He didn't throw a single pass while helping rally Penn State to an Alamo Bowl victory over Texas A&M.

Clark said all those doubts inspired him throughout the offseason.

"That was my main motivation right there," said Clark, who went 14 of 23 for 215 yards with two touchdowns against Oregon State. "And another one is that a lot of people are counting us out still because we have another quarterback now and nobody knows what type of player he is. They're only going by the Alamo Bowl when I ran the ball and things like that. We're out to prove we're no pushovers."

Penn State fans with long memories should have known not to doubt Clark. Recent history suggests an unproven passer can take Penn State a long way.

Michael Robinson headed into the 2005 season having completed 44 percent of his attempts with nearly twice as many interceptions (11) as touchdown passes (six). All he did that year was finish fifth in the Heisman Trophy balloting while leading Penn State to an 11-1 record.

Clark's game has a similar style. So far, he also is delivering similar results.

He has three touchdown passes, one touchdown run and no turnovers through the first two weeks of the season. Clark's versatility helped Penn State go 8-for-9 on third-down conversions Saturday when he was in the game.

Penn State's opening drive featured a 14-yard pass to Norwood on third-and-10 and a 24-yard connection to Mickey Shuler on third-and-7. On his final series of the day, Clark found Norwood for a 26-yard gain on third-and-11 before juking his way to an 18-yard touchdown run on third-and-10.

"As far as his decision-making and things like that, he's kind of exceeded my expectations because I thought he'd be nervous," Norwood said. "He's definitely a confident quarterback, a confident player. He's doing a great job of leading this team."

Of course, he hasn't done it yet against a quality opponent.

Coastal Carolina is a Division I-AA program in its sixth year of existence. Oregon State has won a total of 19 games the past two years, but the Beavers have started out 2-3 each of those seasons. A season-opening 36-28 loss to Stanford last week showed this year's Oregon State squad bears little resemblance to the team that led the nation in run defense a year ago.

"You have to give (Penn State) credit," Oregon State coach Mike Riley said. "They played very efficient football and were very physical. I was disappointed in some missed plays we had and some missed tackle opportunities."

Penn State needs its offense to play better this year because its defense might not be its usual dominant self. Penn State has done just fine the first two weeks of the season, but Sean Lee's preseason knee injury leaves Linebacker U. without a superstar to emulate what Paul Posluszny and Dan Connor accomplished the last three years. The Nittany Lions lacked depth up front even before defensive end Jerome Hayes suffered a knee injury Saturday that likely will knock him out for the rest of the season.

That leaves it up to the offense to keep delivering performances that bring back memories of 1994 and 2005, no matter how much Penn State's coaches resist the comparisons.

"Is it as good as 2005?" Penn State offensive coordinator Galen Hall asked. "That remains to be seen. We've got a long season. Hopefully we can come on, improve every week in practice and play better next week (at Syracuse). That's our goal."

It's hard to imagine Penn State's offense playing much better than it did this week.

Syracuse certainly doesn't want to imagine that possibility. Neither do the Lions' Big Ten opponents.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.



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