One Win Away From the Crown

Penn State has not won a Big Ten championship since the powerhouse team of 1994 got it done. After whipping Wisconsin at Beaver Stadium Saturday evening, the 2005 rendition of the Nittany Lions is a single win away from vaulting to the school's second league title and first BCS bid.

On Fridays, Penn State football players indulge in a different kind of film study. Instead of breaking down tape of their upcoming opponent, they watch footage of the program's storied past.

Assistant coaches Mike McQueary and Jay Paterno oversee the screenings, which are intended as inspiration. Among the most popular films in their vault are the ones of the 1994 Nittany Lions. That storied team finished 12-0 and won the Big Ten championship. There's no shortage of highlights.

“That was a very destructive offense. They destroyed defenses,” receiver Deon Butler said. “They also had last-second drives, and everything wasn't peachy keen with the '94 season. But that motivates us and shows us what we might have to do. We saw a lot of great games with that team. They were very efficient on offense.”

The Nittany Lions didn't need a last-second drive to overcome Wisconsin, 35-14, Saturday night. And because their offense struck for three quick touchdowns to open up a reasonably comfortable lead, they are close to joining the '94 team in the history books.

With one game remaining in its regular season, all that stands between Penn State and the program's first conference championship since 1994 is a typically enigmatic Michigan State squad. Penn State (9-1, 6-1) ends its season in East Lansing in two weeks.

It's a tantalizing possibility.

“I would love it,” center E.Z. Smith said. “Besides a national championship, nothing could be greater. On a personal level, I've been through a lot of stuff and stuck around. It's been a great experience this year after going through what I've been through to be a part of what I'm a part of now.”

“It would mean a lot to us pride-wise to be able to bring a Big Ten championship back here,” safety Chris Harrell added. “We've kind of been at the bottom and people in the Big Ten community have been trying to push us down. To be able to rise to the top would mean a lot.”

There are still two teams that could supplant Penn State as the conference's representative in the Bowl Championship Series. Ohio State is 5-1 in conference play and would win the championship outright if it defeats Northwestern and Michigan in its final two games and Penn State falls to Michigan State. The Buckeyes play host to the Wildcats next Saturday before visiting Michigan Nov. 19 in their traditional finale.

The Wolverines could also catch Penn State. They are 4-2 in conference play but own the tiebreaker with the Lions by virtue of their 27-25 victory Oct. 15. They need Penn State to lose and must beat Indiana at home next Saturday and Ohio State the following week.

There were scouts from the Fiesta, Orange, Sugar, Capital One and Outback bowls (Go to the bowl with Fight On State) on hand at Beaver Stadium for the Lions' game against Wisconsin. Penn State has often been mentioned in connection with the Fiesta Bowl, where it has played six times, most recently in 1997. The Fiesta Bowl has tie-ins with the Big 12 and Pac-10, but if the winners of those conferences play for the national championship in the Rose Bowl - as appears likely with Southern California and Texas ranked 1-2 in this week's BCS poll, then the Fiesta gets to fill its slots with at-large selections.

“There's a lot of football to be played,” said Fiesta Bowl committee chairman Jay Fields. “We have a good history with Penn State and have been fortunate to have Penn State in our game, and they've won all of them. We'll see how the season plays out the next few weeks. We know not to hedge our bets until after Dec. 3.”

The most important date on Penn State's calendar is Nov. 19, when the storied Land Grant Trophy will be up for grabs.

The Spartans are a mystery, as usual. After averaging 49 points in their first four games, they've cooled off. Saturday's 28-21 loss to Purdue was their fourth in five games. They've averaged 27.2 points in those games while giving up 32.2.

The Spartans may benefit from playing at home. Or they may not. They're 3-2 at Spartan Stadium including a 49-14 loss to Northwestern Oct. 22.

The Nittany Lions will have an extra week to prepare for Michigan State. Players said they were beginning to feel fatigued and battered, and, to a man, welcomed the bye. They discounted any suggestion that complacency might settle in after the celebratory end of their home schedule. The seniors, particularly captains Michael Robinson, Alan Zemaitis and Paul Posluszny, won't allow it, Butler said. And there's some school history to be made as well with the 1994 team holding the distinction as the only Penn State squad ever to have won a conference crown.

“Whenever you mention the 1994 team, that was such a great team,” Butler said. “To be mentioned in the same sentence with that team, it's something you could be honored by.”


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