- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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IOWA CITY, Iowa -- It's time to stop talking about Penn State as a nice little story.
The narrative about first-year coach Bill O'Brien getting the most out of his presumably talent-starved, transfer-wrecked roster sounds old, boring and, quite frankly, a bit condescending. Because even in praising O'Brien and his Nittany Lions, there's a subtle hint that things inevitably will fall apart. There's a suggestion that at some point, the letdown will happen -- at some point, Penn State will collapse under the weight of all that has happened to its program in the past 11 months.
Maybe it's time to be honest about Penn State. This is a merciless football team playing with tremendous confidence and urgency on both sides of the ball. O'Brien and his staff are one step -- or, in games such as Saturday night's -- three steps ahead of the competition, and they have more than enough talent to keep on winning.
Right now, the Big Ten has no hotter team than the Lions. A week from now, we could be proclaiming Penn State the Big Ten's best team.
Nice little stories don't come into Kinnick Stadium and destroy Iowa the way Penn State did Saturday night in a 38-14 win before 70,585 stunned souls who had striped the stands in black and gold. Nice little stories don't outgain the host Hawkeyes 504-209, record twice as many first downs (28-14), hold the ball for 38:08 and convert eight of 17 third downs. Nice little stories don't silence a raucous crowd in less than 13 minutes, continuing a trend of first-quarter dominance (Penn State has outscored foes 66-0).
"The sky's the limit for us now," senior defensive tackle Jordan Hill said. "Today just speaks a little about how well we can play."
O'Brien talked in July about the season being Penn State's chance to punch back. On Saturday night, the Lions scored a first-round knockout in a place where they hadn't won since 1999. It marked their fifth win in a row after an 0-2 start.
"Every day, we're running out of time," senior linebacker Michael Mauti said. "We don't believe in a lull or anything like that. You only have so many games to suit up in a Penn State uniform. That's something really special that we take a lot of pride in.
"There's so much emotion we bring."
Perhaps Penn State's strongest weapon isn't O'Brien's scheme, which has transformed one of the nation's worst offenses and one of the Big Ten's weakest quarterbacks (Matt McGloin). It isn't a stout defensive front seven or a group of surprisingly dynamic young receivers and tight ends.
It's urgency. The Lions have it, and it shows in their play.
"They know at the end of the day, there's only five games left," O'Brien said. "There's only five games left. So what are you going to do? OK, we're going to be flat today, and then the last four, we'll get up? I believe that these guys will come ready to play and be energized. Whether we win or not, who knows, but they'll be energized."
Open weeks haven't exactly been favorable to Big Ten teams in recent years. Many return to the field sluggish.
Penn State returned in fifth gear, shifting into its up-tempo offense -- O'Brien calls it NASCAR tempo -- on the game's second series and marching 84 yards in nine plays for a touchdown. The Lions kept the pedal down and scored on four of their next six possessions, as McGloin (26-for-38 passing, 289 yards, 2 touchdowns) spread the ball to several targets, namely freshman tight end Kyle Carter (6 catches, 85 yards), and received a big boost from a healthy Bill Belton (16 carries, 103 rush yards, 3 touchdowns) at running back.
"I didn't think we could come in here and huddle, and break the huddle, and run a normal pace," O'Brien said.
The result? "They couldn't keep up with it," McGloin said.
Penn State racked up 10 first downs and 187 yards in the first quarter, and finished the first half with 304 yards. Four players had multiple receptions, and Belton, finally near full strength after dealing with an ankle injury since the season opener, averaged 8.5 yards per carry.
A Lions offense that eclipsed 25 points just once in Big Ten play last season has put up totals of 35, 39 and 38 points in its first three league contests this season.
"Coach O'Brien's a great coach, and what he does is very unique and very effective," center Matt Stankiewitch said. "We're just proving it. Do we have an advantage? Coach O'Brien's the guy we have an advantage with because he's the coach."
Penn State's offensive renaissance under O'Brien has somewhat overshadowed a defense that keeps getting better each week. The Lions kept Iowa's offense out of the end zone for nearly 56 minutes -- the Hawkeyes scored on a kickoff return early in the fourth quarter -- and surrendered just 20 rush yards on 23 carries. Iowa star Mark Weisman played despite an ankle sprain and had 9 yards on five carries.
Hill and Mauti triggered the defensive effort, combining for 17 tackles, including three for loss, and two sacks. Mauti had one of two interceptions against struggling Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg (17-for-36 passing, 189 yards).
"It was one of my better games," said Hill, who led Penn State with nine tackles. "[Defensive line coach Larry Johnson] always says, 'Who's going to rise to the occasion when you're playing under the lights?'"
Penn State will be back under the lights next Saturday when it hosts undefeated Ohio State. The forecast calls for a whiteout at Beaver Stadium. No Big Ten fan base cherishes night games like Penn State's. For seniors such as Mauti, McGloin and Hill, it'll be their last time playing in front of the faithful at night.
It'll also give Penn State an idea of exactly where it stands.
"It'll be the best team we play so far this season," Hill said. "It'll be a great test for us, and we're up for the challenge."
In O'Brien's eyes, why wouldn't they be up for it?
"When you play football at Penn State," he said, "you have a hell of a lot to play for."
Saturday night against Ohio State, Penn State will play for the title of Big Ten's best team.