The Nittany Lions are 7-1 overall and 4-1 in the Big Ten and will claim their first league championship since 1994 if they just keep winning. That makes their approach to the season's final three regular-season games straightforward.
You've got to win, win, win. You can't lose, Paxson said. You've got the Big Ten in your hands. It's right there. You can hold onto it if you want, but if you lose, you give it up. We're holding our destiny in our hands.
The first hurdle is Saturday against Purdue, a team that had hoped to contend for the Big Ten title itself before succumbing to injuries and inconsistency on both sides of the ball. The Boilermakers are 2-5 and 0-4 in conference play, and the record is just one of several uncharacteristic blemishes. This is also a team with a quarterback dilemma, an unusual situation given that Purdue has fielded several of the best passers in recent conference history.
Boilermakers coach Joe Tiller hasn't said who will start at quarterback for his team Saturday. Senior Brandon Kirsch, a Lebanon, Pa., native who was considering signing with the Lions before their interest waned his senior year at Cedar Crest High, started the team's first six games. His average of 232.1 passing yards a game was - and still is - third-best in the Big Ten. But Tiller didn't feel he was playing to his full potential. After a 34-29 loss to Northwestern, the coach went to his bullpen, inserting redshirt freshman Curtis Painter into the starting lineup last week against Wisconsin.
The decision to start Painter, who threw for 212 yards and a touchdown in the Boilers' 31-20 loss, did not meet with unanimous approval. Among those expressing disappointment was Kirsch, who alluded to the team's defensive woes when it became clear leading up to the Wisconsin game that he was about to be benched.
I'm not saying I'm the best quarterback out there or the worst, but I'm definitely an average quarterback, and I've had solid performances where we should be able to win a lot of the games, Kirsch told the Lafayette Journal and Courier. I think if you look at the losses, there are definitely mistakes that I've made, but it's a team effort. And there have been a lot of things that have gone wrong with the team this year.
No matter who starts Saturday in Beaver Stadium, the Lions will have to be on their toes. In addition to their passing prowess, both quarterbacks can run. Kirsch is third on the team in rushing with 179 yards while Painter rushed for 60 yards and a touchdown against the Badgers. As a team, the Boilermakers have given up only three sacks all season.
There's not a great difference between the two [quarterbacks], defensive end Matthew Rice said. The main difference for us this weekend is that there are going to be a lot more offensive plays. We'll probably see 80 or 90 plays, and there are a lot of quick passes. That hinders us on our pass rush.
Last year, the Lions lost to the ninth-ranked Boilermakers, 20-13, at Beaver Stadium. The game was typical of Penn State's 2004 season. The defense held Purdue 27 points below its season scoring average, but the offense couldn't make any plays in the clutch. Trailing by a touchdown in the closing minutes, the Lions were unable to capitalize on Rodney Kinlaw's 65-yard kickoff return. Zack Mills threw four consecutive incompletions from the Purdue 33-yard line and Penn State turned the ball over with 2:14 left.
A year later, the roles have been reversed. It's the Nittany Lions who are nationally ranked and playing for a berth in the BCS and the Boilermakers who are scuffling along with just two victories.
Players admit they would like to dole out some payback after their dismal 2003 and '04 seasons. But they insist they don't have a grudge against the Boilermakers despite last year's loss.
It's another game for us this season, Rice said. We plan on attacking like we've attacked every game.