Looking Like the Penn State of Old

As the final seconds ticked off the Beaver Stadium clock Saturday, several Penn State players sprinted across the field to grab the Governor's Victory Bell, presented annually to the winner of the PSU-Minnesota game.

Michael Robinson then stood before the student section, celebrating the Nittany Lions' first 5-0 start since 1999.

In their most impressive performance in at least three years, the Nittany Lions overwhelmed what was thought to be a quality opponent in No. 18 Minnesota and rolled to a 44-14 win.

Afterward, the players basked in a certain return to the Top 25 after several seasons of frustration.

"Hopefully," State linebacker Paul Posluszny said, "we sent a message that Penn State's back."

Indeed, a new day has dawned in Happy Valley: Penn State is looking a lot like Penn State again.

This was total domination on both sides of the ball. The defense, pushed around a week earlier at Northwestern, played like the unit it's supposed to be. It forced three immediate three-and-outs and made Laurence Maroney, Minnesota's supposed Heisman Trophy candidate, disappear.

"We wanted to make a statement," cornerback Alan Zemaitis said.

Penn State's offense, refreshingly, is now involved in that statement. That's the difference in this year's team.

The offensive numbers leaped off the stat sheet - 35 first downs, 364 yards rushing, no sacks, 13 of 19 third-down conversions and an 11-minute edge in time of possession.

"I thought we played a good football game everywhere," Joe Paterno said.

The defense was expected to once again be a backbone. The offense was the wild-card, and through five games, it's been impressive.

Saturday, it featured excellent play-calling and no indecision as it spread the field and showcased the program's new-found speed.

"With the personnel we have now, you can go into a game with the idea that you're going to throw the football," Paterno said. "We have a chance to have a pretty balanced offense."

When Minnesota's defense became justifiably conscious of receivers Derrick Williams and Deon Butler, Penn State immediately adjusted and sent Michael Robinson on quarterback draws up the middle repeatedly for solid yardage. That freed hard-running tailback Tony Hunt.

"They had to make a choice whether they wanted to fall back and let us pass down the field or come up and stop the run," said Butler, who led the way with six catches for 83 yards.. Minnesota didn't do either particularly well, and Penn State's offensive line was a big reason. It turned in its best effort in years.

"I think after we scored the first touchdown, we got the mentality they couldn't stop us," offensive tackle Levi Brown said.

Once Penn State got a two-score lead, it never seemed in danger of losing.

While Robinson could have been more accurate - a challenge he'll likely face throughout the season - he did not fumble, and the Lions did not commit a single turnover.

Defensively, Penn State was just as good. It swarmed to the ball, was extremely aggressive and showed none of the passiveness that allowed four previous opponents to own time of possession.

"We played inspired," Zemaitis said.

This was also a win in which the crowd contributed mightily. It was involved from the first play, exhorting the defense with standing ovations and creating an atmosphere that will be more than duplicated Saturday when Ohio State comes calling.

"The crowd was into it, and it made us into it," Hunt said.

Zemaitis was asked the last time he felt this good about where the team was headed. He paused for a few seconds.

"Nebraska, 2002," he said.

The Lions blew away the Cornhuskers, 40-7, that night. It was their last win over a top-10 team.

Minnesota ruined Penn State's plans in 1999. In an ironic twist, maybe this game will be a springboard in 2005.

"Minnesota has beaten us when LaVar (Arrington) was here," Zemaitis said. "Having our offense click like it did was good for our morale. It seems like everything we dreamed of, and talked about for hours in the off-season, is coming to the forefront."

And how does the dream end?

"Rose Bowl," Zemaitis said, "national championship."

Paterno was quick to caution, "let's not get carried away," but this much seems certain: If the Lions keep playing like they did Saturday, they'll be a tough out for anybody.

FightOnState contributor Neil Rudel covers Penn State football for the Altoona Mirror.

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