Penn State barely survives (again), but its Big Ten goals are alive as ever

Dr. Saturday

Penn State 10, Illinois 7.
There's a certain type of fan who likes to think of the early whitewash that hit the Northeast today as "football weather." They're right, of course: It's just completely unwatchable football. The only bright side of playing on a day like today is that the monotony of all the punting is broken up by all the fumbles.

Penn State began the fourth quarter with 121 yards total offense, eight first downs, eight punts, six fumbles, three turnovers and zero points. The Nittany Lions' only trips into Illinois territory had ended in a missed field goal and a turnover on downs. On their first scoring drive, it took them six minutes to gain 13 yards and kick a field goal following a blocked punt. Their final drive of the night, a 10-play march for the game-winning touchdown, initially stalled in Illini territory before a penalty bailed Penn State out on fourth down. Again, this is the winning team.

In fact, the more the Lions win, the less the cadaverous offense seems like a burden than it does a quirky personality trait that instills character or otherwise makes it all worthwhile. These boys, they stink, but they're survivors: With Michigan State's loss at Nebraska, Penn State is the only Big Ten team without a conference loss, and owns the longest win streak by far at seven games going into a bye week. Four of those games they've won now with less than 17 points on the board, two of those coming against Temple — another late, desperate rally to stave off an upset in the fourth quarter — and Indiana.

Only Minnesota has had less success in the passing game, and that may change after Lion quarterbacks Matt McGloin and Robert Bolden combined to go 10-of-29 passing against Illinois, with zero touchdowns and an interception. Their only reliable receiver is out indefinitely with a freak foot injury. But every time they've needed a late drive to reward the defense with a go-ahead touchdown (Temple, Illinois) or a time-consuming drive to milk the clock (Iowa, Indiana, Purdue, Northwestern), they've delivered, eventually. That's a lot more than you can say for Iowa or Michigan State today.

Now, with eight uninspiring but very real wins in the bank and a week off ahead of the toughest stretch of the season — Nebraska, Ohio State and Wisconsin to close the year, and to a large extend to decide the Big Ten race — the question is, can Penn State keep delivering? The defense, obviously, is up for keeping the Lions in almost any game, and has on a weekly basis. (Illinois is the fifth team in eight games this year held to one touchdown or less.) The offense, just as obviously, has to occasionally score. As long as it keeps getting one or two across the line before the clock runs out, though, one way or another, Penn State is a contender.

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Matt Hinton is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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