Penn State exhibits brief signs of offensive life, just in time for do-or-die at Wisconsin

Dr. Saturday

Penn State 20, Ohio State 14.
Penn State doesn't ask much from its offense, and in the big picture, it didn't get much today: The Nittany Lions failed to reach their season averages for total yards or points — already among the worst in the Big Ten on both counts — and they were shut out in the second half. But what they did get in the first half was good enough for Penn State's biggest win of the season, and to restore a little optimism to its push for a ticket to the Big Ten Championship Game.

As fleeting as it turned out to be, the Lions' first three possessions were a borderline breakthrough. Facing arguably the best defense it's seen in the Big Ten, on the road, Penn State put 17 points on the board in the game's first 19 minutes — more points than PSU has scored in the entirety of six different games — all on extended drives covering at least 65 yards. Three different backs broke runs covering at least 35 yards. They converted their first seven third downs. With a field goal on the way to the locker room, the Lions had 20 points in a half for just the third time this year.

The first two: Against Indiana State and Northwestern. Against Ohio State — even a watered-down version of Ohio State, now sitting at 6-5 with its six-year Big Ten championship streak officially snapped — it's a slightly different context.

The prevailing question from here is just how much of that first-half attack shows up next week at Wisconsin, where the context is a winner-take-all collision for the Leaders Division title.{YSP:MORE} The second half in Columbus was a return to the more familiar context everyone expected: Both offenses were shut out, including a goal-line stand by the Buckeyes after fumbling the ball away on their own six-yard line in the third quarter. The Nittany Lions never threatened to score again, and with this defense (combined with Ohio State's own self-destructive tendencies), they didn't have to.

With Russell Wilson pulling the strings on the other side, at some point they'll have to in Madison, even if only for a half. Given the ongoing issues in the passing game, that's hardly a given: Quarterback Matt McGloin had 88 yards with zero touchdowns and an interception, which is… well, Matt McGloin-esque against competent defenses. Wisconsin is better than competent.

But Illinois proved again today that the Badgers can be run on, and with Stephfon Green's emergence alongside 1,000-yard man Silas Redd, Penn State was as good on the ground as it has all season. As murky as this season has been on the field, and as devastating as the last two weeks have been off of it, that fleeting spark alone has the Lions looking like serious contenders at precisely the right time.

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

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