Poz, Connor Looking Ahead

The players at the heart of the Lion defense aim to help the unit bounce back after a tough loss. With plenty still on the line this season, that should not be a difficult task.

Paul Posluszny spent last Saturday night in an airport terminal, watching “Braveheart” on TV while waiting for technicians to fix the computer problem that was delaying Penn State's flight home. Although some Nittany Lion players didn't mind the inconvenience and used the unexpected layover to sort through their emotions after a 27-25 loss to Michigan earlier that day, Posluszny wasn't one of them. He just stewed.

The junior linebacker had good reason to be upset. It was the defense that blinked in Penn State's loss. Protecting a four-point lead in the game's final 53 seconds, Posluszny and company were seemingly poised to finish off the troublesome Wolverines, even after Steve Breaston gave them great field position with a 41-yard kickoff return. If Penn State could just keep Michigan out of the end zone, the team would leave Ann Arbor with its national championship hopes intact. That hardly seemed an improbable scenario. Indeed, it was just the scenario Posluszny was hoping for.

“If someone were to tell me the game was going to be in the hands of the defense, I would have said, 'That's great, that's how we want it to be,' ” he said Tuesday. “But things didn't work out for us.”

They sure didn't. Chad Henne drove Michigan down the field, completing a 10-yard touchdown pass to Mario Manningham on the final play of the game as the Wolverines defeated Penn State for the seventh consecutive time.

Now the Lions must regroup. And it's the defense that will face the most scrutiny when the season resumes Saturday night at Illinois.

The Nittany Lions are surrendering 306.9 yards and 17.1 points a game this season. While the overall numbers are more than solid, the team has suffered some lapses in two of its four Big Ten games. The Michigan loss, in which Penn State took two second-half leads only to see the Wolverines answer with touchdowns of their own, is going to be tough to forget.

“It kind of kills you inside,” linebacker Dan Connor admitted. “It's a tough way to get your first loss of the season. But when we beat Ohio State, you thought about it for 24 hours, then you had to turn the page. There are a lot of good teams in the Big Ten you have to buckle down for.”

Illinois wouldn't appear to be one of those teams. The Fighting Illini are winless in the Big Ten under first-year coach Ron Zook and are last in the league in scoring (21.2 points a game) and 10th in total offense (375.7 yards a game). They try to spread the field but have had little success at creating matchup problems. Even Indiana was able to hold the Illini to 13 points. Penn State's defense figures to have the upper hand, which is one of the reasons the Lions are 16 1/2 -point favorites.

The Michigan game notwithstanding, Penn State certainly has benefited from Connor's return. The sophomore was conspicuous by his absence in the nonconference season, especially given the circumstances. He was one of several players found to have made a series of prank phone calls to former Nittany Lion assistant coach Joe Sarra. As a result, he wasn't able to play until the team's Big Ten opener at Northwestern.

Connor, who performed community service as part of his punishment, said he felt like he was back in game shape by the time Penn State faced Minnesota Oct. 1. He said he never gave any thought to redshirting. Connor focused instead on the current season, and earlier this week dismissed his troubles as “something that's in the past now.”

“It's over with,” Connor said. “There's nothing you can do other than learn from it. It was a mistake, but it's time to move on and play football and be a good person on and off the field.”

Posluszny is thrilled to have Connor back in action.

“He's a huge asset,” the team captain said. “He's such a great playmaker, and he played one of his best games in tough circumstances against Michigan. He can do a lot of special things on the field. He always gets to the ball. It's a huge advantage to have him back.”

If the defense regroups, the Nittany Lions can talk realistically of winning their final four games and finishing the regular season 10-1, even with the loss of star freshman wideout Derrick Williams. Beyond that, the postseason picture is murky.

As of Tuesday, players were still talking optimistically about their chances of scrambling back into Rose Bowl contention. Said Posluszny: “We lost one game. If we do everything we need to do, we can still play for the national championship and go to a serious bowl game.”

For a program that has gone 11 years since winning its only Big Ten title, a berth in any BCS bowl would be significant.

But in order to contend for such an honor, Penn State can't afford to dwell on the past. As much as last weekend's loss hurt, it's over.

“We have to stop thinking about it,” Connor said, “and worry about the future.”

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