PSU stiff-arms critics, keeps on winning

There might not have been a trendier upset pick in Week 8 than Northwestern over Penn State.

Even though the Lions came in at 6-1 and the Wildcats at 2-4, Penn State was doubted. Even though the Lions had one of the nation's best defenses and the Wildcats had one of the worst, Penn State was doubted. Even though the Lions' only loss came against arguably the nation's best team (Alabama), while Northwestern came in on a four-game slide that began with a loss to Army, Penn State was doubted.

Sharp college football observers like colleague Desmond Howard picked Northwestern. Even less intelligent folks like me went against JoePa's boys.

Penn State went out and beat Northwestern 34-24, improving to 7-1 and moving to the top of the Leaders division after Wisconsin's loss at Michigan State.

Will we ever learn? Better yet, will we ever believe in the 2011 Nittany Lions?

They haven't made it easy to hop on the bandwagon.

They struggled to compete against Alabama, by far the best team they've played. Their quarterback competition has dragged on far too long, even when it's clear Matthew McGloin is the better option. They seem allergic to style points, grinding out wins against Temple, Indiana, Iowa and Purdue. Only one team they've beaten, Iowa, is receiving votes in the latest AP Poll.

It's for these reasons -- and others -- that Penn State will continue to have its doubters, who wait for potential told-you-so validation when the schedule gets tougher in November. They might get it, they might not. The final four regular-season games will tell us a lot about these Lions.

But at some point, the reasons to believe start to outnumber the reasons to doubt. And there are reasons to believe Penn State could end the season as a genuinely good team with the chance to make some noise in a bowl game.

Here are five:

1. A deep and playmaking defense: Penn State's depth on defense has been tremendous this season, especially at the linebacker position. Last year's unit couldn't have lost a star like linebacker Michael Mauti and continued to produce the way it has. The Lions also are making many more impact plays on defense. They have 18 takeaways and 21 sacks, eclipsing their totals from all of last season (17 takeaways, 17 sacks). While Penn State's defense wasn't dominant against Northwestern, the game turned on an interception by linebacker Gerald Hodges in the third quarter.

2. Silas Redd: The sophomore is quietly becoming one of the nation's top running backs. He has eclipsed 125 rush yards in each of the past four games and has five 100-yard performances this season. Redd ranks third in the Big Ten and 16th nationally in rushing average (108.6 ypg).

3. Devon Still: You can't undervalue a difference-making defensive tackle, and Still has fit the description this season for Penn State. He leads Big Ten defensive tackles and ranks second in the entire conference in tackles for loss (12) and boasts three sacks. Still is the centerpiece for the Lions' success on defense.

4. An offense finding its identity: No one will confuse Penn State's offense with Oregon's or Oklahoma State's, but the Lions finally know who they are, and that's a big step after the first five weeks. While Joe Paterno hasn't committed to a top quarterback, McGloin has emerged and, more important, doesn't seemed fazed by the ongoing indecision. The offensive line is slowly making strides, and Justin Brown and Devon Smith are emerging at receiver alongside star Derek Moye.

5. A potentially more manageable closing stretch: Penn State hosts slumping Illinois this week and has an excellent chance to be 8-1 entering its bye. While the Lions get no gimmes in their final three games -- Nebraska, Ohio State and Wisconsin -- the stretch isn't nearly as daunting as it seemed before the season. Nebraska has had ups and downs on defense and must travel to Beaver Stadium, never an easy place to win in November. Ohio State is similar to Penn State -- great defense, up-and-down offense -- and the game looks like a toss-up. While the trip to Wisconsin will be very tough, the Leaders division title could be on the line and Penn State's defense gives it a chance.

Not convinced? That's fine. The doubters could have their Denny Green moment sometime in the next few weeks.

But if Penn State keeps winning, the doubters will dwindle in numbers. The Lions' bandwagon, meanwhile, will begin to fill up.