Off-field turmoil prepares Lions for on-field tests
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Despite the dominant victories, the emerging stars and the climb up the national rankings, No. 3 Penn State continued to generate a mixture of doubt and curiosity.
|Matthew Emmons-US PRESSWIRE|
|Penn State improved to 9-0 by knocking off the Buckeyes Saturday night.|
How would the Nittany Lions respond to adversity? Not first-half adversity against a significantly inferior Michigan team. Real adversity. The kind that comes on the road against a quality opponent with the clock winding down.
Head coach Joe Paterno was the most curious. He liked his team and its potential. But he couldn't get a true gauge on how good the squad could be until it was placed under extreme pressure.
A fourth-quarter deficit at Ohio Stadium certainly qualified, not to mention having starting quarterback Daryll Clark standing on the sidelines with a head injury.
"We've got a good football team," Paterno said definitively after Saturday night's 13-6 win against No. 9 Ohio State.
Defensive end Josh Gaines knew the truth about Penn State before the season began. And though the Lions didn't face adversity on the field until Saturday night, they had faced plenty off of it.
From arrests to suspensions to dismissals to embarrassing press, Penn State encountered it all during the offseason. The problems spilled into the season when starting defensive linemen Maurice Evans and Abe Koroma were suspended after police found marijuana in their apartment.
"All the off-field situations, everything we've seen, everything we've gone through together, the only thing it's done is make us closer," Gaines said. "For us to go through situations, I feel like there's nothing we can't do. There's nothing we can't accomplish."
The Lions undoubtedly didn't want or welcome a tumultuous offseason, but they turned it into fuel.
"It definitely got us ready," Gaines said. "We're a strong mental team. End of last year, we played with five D-linemen in the bowl game. Then we're going into the season and we lose two D-linemen, two star D-linemen [Chris Baker and Phil Taylor, both of whom were dismissed]. Then all of a sudden, early in the season, we lose Mo and Abe.
"So we've been facing adversity for a long time now. A long, long time. And we just keep fighting. It says a lot about us and it says a lot about our team."
No position group has faced more obstacles than the defensive line, which got hit with injuries in addition to suspensions and dismissals. But the front four continued to step up Saturday night, holding Ohio State star running back Chris "Beanie" Wells to 55 yards on 22 carries (2.5 ypc).
Ohio State finished with just 61 rushing yards in the game, and Lions defensive end Aaron Maybin collected his league-leading 11th sack of the season.
"We knew that every obstacle that we faced was going to definitely bring us closer to where we need to be," Maybin said. "And we're definitely a lot stronger for that now."
Penn State survived a daunting stretch -- Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio State -- with its perfect record intact. The Lions won at Wisconsin, ended their nine-game losing streak to Michigan and then won at Ohio Stadium for the first time as a member of the Big Ten.
After a bye week that players say is much needed, the Lions resume their quest for a national title Nov. 8 at Iowa. They finish the regular season by hosting Indiana and Michigan State.
"It was something that people didn't think we could do at the beginning of the year," quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno said. "Nobody thought we'd come out of the month of October undefeated, and our guys took it as a chip on their shoulder."
Added wideout Deon Butler: "It's another stepping stone for our team."
But the foundation was laid before the first ball was snapped.
"Everything we do as a team really prepares us for games," running back Evan Royster said. "We've really carried each other through some tough times, especially out on the field."