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After an offseason dominated by talk of disciplinary problems and Joe Paterno's viability as a coach, Penn State shifted the spotlight back to where it matters, the football field.
The Nittany Lions were unquestionably the Big Ten's best team this fall, blending a dynamic offense with a resolute defense to finish 11-1. For the second time in four seasons, Penn State emerged with a league title and came a flicker away from competing for the national championship.
As for Paterno? Despite a bum hip he injured while demonstrating an onsides kick in preseason practice, the 81-year-old once again proved that it's foolish to question his coaching ability.
The Spread HD system provided a crystal-clear picture for Penn State's offense, which surged behind a first-year starter at quarterback (Daryll Clark), a first-year starter at running back (Evan Royster), three multiyear starters at wide receiver (Derrick Williams, Deon Butler and Jordan Norwood) and a veteran-laden offensive line. Drawing comparisons to Penn State's record-setting 1994 offense, the unit ranked 11th nationally in scoring (40.2 ppg), eclipsing 34 points in all but two games.
The defense lost key pieces to injury, suspension and dismissal, but an underrated unit showed remarkable depth, particularly up front. Defensive end Aaron Maybin emerged as Penn State's next dominant pass rusher, and linebacker Navorro Bowman filled the void left by Sean Lee. The Lions' defense ranked fourth nationally in scoring (12.4 ypg) and fifth in yards allowed (263.9 ypg).
Despite a near perfect season, Penn State didn't get much national respect. A Rose Bowl win against USC would change things.
Offensive MVP -- Quarterback Daryll Clark
After outlasting Pat Devlin for the starting job, Clark immediately took ownership of the offense. A perfect fit for the Spread HD system, Clark accounted for 26 touchdowns (17 pass, 9 rush) and threw only four interceptions in 285 pass attempts. The consensus first-team All-Big Ten selection brought excellent leadership to the huddle and showed great discipline. Royster and Williams also deserve to be mentioned here.
Defensive MVP -- Defensive end Aaron Maybin
No position group lost more during the summer and the early part of the fall than the defensive line, but Maybin stepped in and stepped up. The redshirt sophomore led the Big Ten in sacks (12) and ranked third in tackles for loss (19). He was a consensus first-team all-conference selection, an All American and a finalist for the Bednarik Award. Bowman and defensive tackle Jared Odrick also should be recognized here.
Turning point -- Oct. 11 at Wisconsin
Like Ohio State, Penn State had multiple turning points, including a 24-23 loss at Iowa that knocked it out of the national title race. But a trip to Camp Randall Stadium allowed Penn State to establish itself as a legitimate championship contender and the Big Ten's top dog. The Lions handed Wisconsin its worst home loss since 1989 and won in dominating fashion, as it did for most of the season (10 wins by 14 points or more).
The Lions have an excellent opportunity to show they shouldn't be grouped in with the Big Ten's recent BCS failures by upsetting USC at the Rose Bowl. Despite an 11-1 mark with the lone blemish a 1-point road loss in the final minute, Penn State's dominant season hasn't resonated nationally. Next fall the Lions must replenish itself at wide receiver, in the secondary and along the offensive line, but Clark, Royster, Bowman, Maybin and Lee return to lead a team that once again will contend for a BCS bowl berth.