It's a sign of progress when a 10-2 season elicits mixed feelings in Happy Valley.
In the early part of the decade, Penn State would have been giddy about a 10-win campaign, especially when each victory came by double digits. The Lions once again played suffocating defense this season, finishing in the top 10 nationally in yards allowed (277.1 yards per game), points allowed (11.8 points per game), rushing defense (93.9 ypg), sacks (2.92 sacks per game) and tackles for loss (8.3 per game). Quarterback Daryll Clark set Penn State passing and touchdowns records, and a new-look receiving corps stepped up nicely.
The end result was another 10-win campaign. It's just the second time Penn State has recorded back-to-back 10-win seasons as a Big Ten member.
But to call this season a smashing success would be a mistake. Penn State stumbled in its two biggest games, both on its home field, and fell to both Ohio State and Iowa. Clark and the offense struggled mightily against the Buckeyes and Hawkeyes, and Penn State's season-long problems on special teams surfaced in both losses. A diluted schedule provided few other opportunities for signature wins.
The good news is Penn State comes off arguably its best performance, a 42-14 spanking of Michigan State in East Lansing. The Lions' roster is filled with stars, particularly on defense, as tackle Jared Odrick shared Big Ten Defensive MVP honors and linebacker Navorro Bowman earned first-team all-conference honors for the second straight year.
A win against LSU in the Capital One Bowl would earn Penn State a stamp of approval for 2009.
Offensive MVP: Daryll Clark. The senior shared Silver Football honors as the Big Ten's MVP, and his value to Penn State this fall can't be measured. Clark set team records for passing yards (2,787), touchdown passes (23) and touchdowns responsible for (30). He carried the offense early on when the line was jelling.
Defensive MVP: Jared Odrick. It's a close call between Odrick and Bowman, but the senior defensive tackle earned the respect of the league's coaches, and that's good enough for me. Odrick constantly commanded double-teams and anchored the nation's No. 10 rushing defense. He finished the regular season with 41 tackles, 10 for loss, with six sacks and a blocked kick.
Turning point: The Lions' offense disappeared against Iowa and put up only seven first-half points the next week at Illinois. But Clark, Stephfon Green and Evan Royster turned things around in the second half at Memorial Stadium, surging to a 35-17 win. It started a dominating five-game win streak for the Nittany Lions, who won by an average of 26.6 points during the span.
What's next: Penn State searches for its first signature win against No. 12 LSU in the Capital One Bowl. A victory should secure another top-10 finish for the program and send Clark, linebacker Sean Lee and others out on a good note. Penn State could be rebuilding a bit in 2010, so it's critical to play well in Orlando.