Cautious Optimism at Penn State

Butler happy with what he's seen of the Nittany Lion offense, even if it hasn't translated into big numbers for him.

When Deon Butler described the mood on Penn State's campus this week as cautiously optimistic, he was talking not about midterms but about the other major influence on University Park's collective fall-semester demeanor: the Nittany Lions' football season.

So far, that season has gone about as well as anyone could have hoped. The Lions have outscored their first two opponents by a combined margin of 111-24, and while the season opener against Coastal Carolina was an all-but-inevitable romp, last Saturday's 45-14 flogging of Oregon State came as a bit of a surprise and has generated some buzz.

“People are realizing we can have something special,” Butler said. “But they're waiting to see what happens when we play that first real big opponent. There's cautious optimism around campus. But as far as the team goes, we know we have to get better from week to week.”

This week's visit to Syracuse won't afford the Nittany Lions an opportunity to make a statement. The Orange, who are playing Penn State for the first time since 1990, are 0-2 with losses to Northwestern and Akron and have won just seven games since 2005.

But it's also Penn State's first road game of the season. So while the national media won't be paying close attention, the Lions are wary of falling into a trap. The Carrier Dome can be a hostile venue when the home team is doing well, and with a first-year starter at quarterback and a defense that is losing players at an alarming rate, the Lions can scarcely afford to be overconfident.

Said Butler, “Week in and week out, any team can beat you.”

Penn State's passing game has been overshadowed by Evan Royster's running and scoring the past two weeks. Likewise, receivers such as Butler and Derrick Williams have played supporting roles with Daryll Clark favoring Jordan Norwood. Norwood's 12 catches are as many as the next four pass-catchers combined.

Butler said Norwood's early-season outbursts have been partly due to defensive schemes that have had him facing safeties — mismatches that Clark has been only too happy to exploit.

“That's the great thing about this offense,” Butler said. “If someone's stepping up and making plays, we're happy with it.”

The Lions will be expected to shine against a Syracuse defense that is giving up 481 yards a game. After this Saturday's game and a home date against Temple next week, the Big Ten season begins and the Lions will have a chance to prove themselves against the likes of Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio State.

Until then, they are content with the lukewarm optimism they are generating. More than content, actually. Said Butler, “We can thrive off of it. We can use it as motivation. As players, we can't help who we schedule. We just have to go out and dominate.”

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