Penn State still searching for signature win

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

When scanning the BCS standings, it's pretty easy to formulate a one-sentence summary for each team to this point in the season.


  • No. 1 Florida -- Dominating defense has picked up slack for offense, lacking a bit at wide receiver, led by quarterback (Tim Tebow) with potential to be Superman.

  • No. 4 Iowa -- Extremely resilient team led by defense and special teams, Jekyll-and-Hyde quarterback in Ricky Stanzi, dominates fourth quarter, multitude of close wins preventing national respect.

  • No. 5 Cincinnati -- Genius head coach (Brian Kelly) directing masterpiece on offense, overcame loss of starting quarterback Tony Pike, great wide receivers and solid defense, hamstrung by Big East's reputation.

  • No. 8 Oregon -- Disastrous season debut against Boise State, overcame suspension of star running back LeGarrette Blount, crushed USC and Cal, frontrunner for Rose Bowl berth, incredible turnaround.

Then you get to No. 11 Penn State. What do we really know about this team?

Nine games into the season, the Nittany Lions have flown completely under the radar. And it's not entirely their fault. Sure, it would have been nice to see Penn State play a decent nonconference opponent instead of Akron, Syracuse, Temple and Eastern Illinois.

But the Big Ten has really let down the Nittany Lions this season. They have faced only one ranked opponent, Iowa, and lost 21-10 back on Sept. 26.

Penn State has made strides since then and breezed through the month of October, but it beat no team close to the Top 25. Normally, the Nittany Lions' triumph at Michigan would carry a lot of weight nationally, but Michigan is a disaster right now. Wins against Northwestern and Illinois looked good before the season, but both of those teams have underachieved.

When will we get a true gauge on Penn State? The wait should be over on Saturday afternoon (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET).

Ohio State is visiting Happy Valley, and while the 16th-ranked Buckeyes aren't a powerhouse this season, they remain the measuring-stick program in the Big Ten. They boast a dominant defense and an offense starting to find itself. And they don't lose in November.

For the Lions, Saturday's game likely represents their final chance for a signature win during the regular season, their final chance to show the progress made since the Iowa loss.

"When you play a team you know is good and everyone knows is good, you look at it like, 'Hey, if we beat these guys, we'll know we really are good,'" Penn State left tackle Dennis Landolt said.

The defense has been more than good, leading the nation in points allowed (9.33 ppg), ranking second in tackles for loss (8.8 per game) and ranking fifth both in total defense (254.8 ypg) and rushing defense (84.1 ypg). The offense certainly has something prove Saturday against Ohio State, which last year held Penn State to 13 points and knocked out quarterback Daryll Clark. The Buckeyes have posted three shutouts this season and rank sixth nationally in total defense.

Penn State needs some help to return to the Rose Bowl, but other goals are still out there. It could become the first Big Ten team to beat Ohio State in consecutive seasons since Wisconsin in 2003-04.

More importantly, a victory Saturday will show Penn State is more than a product of an easy schedule. It will show the Lions are a worthy BCS bowl contender.

"It's a chance to see how good we really are," Landolt said, "how far we've come."