A week after their BCS hopes apparently crashed and burned, the Nittany Lions went back to basics and on the road for the first time this year to scenic Champaign, Ill. The offense that sputtered and died a week earlier in Happy Valley at the hands of Iowa packed something old in their equipment truck this past Saturday.
A running game.
The Lions and their Spread HD offense managed to keep everyone off-balance through most of last season, and did enough to get through the first three meaningless home games of 2009 before imploding on national TV. What they needed was some balance. What they needed was a running game.
That running game came from virtually nowhere in the second half to leave tread marks all over the Illinois defense, in the process giving everyone else on Penn State's schedule something to worry about. Evan Royster and Stephfon Greene both ran for 100 yards and QB Darryl Clark returned as a running threat as the Lions ran up 28 second-half points.
It's no great state secret Joe Paterno has been scared to death to turn Clark loose as a runner this year without a proven backup behind him. But Paterno realized that his offense simply wasn't working without his senior QB as a threat on the ground. So the old coach squinted his eyes and turned Clark loose, hoping that when he opened them fully again he didn't see freshman Kevin Newsome trotting onto the field.
Newsome eventually did, but long after things were decided.
The Lions have shown more than enough defense this season (only three of the 21 points Iowa racked up came on a sustained drive against the defense). Maybe, just maybe, with a running game it's starting to appear all is not lost.
The Lions won't learn much of use this week, with another cupcake in Eastern Illinois squarely in their sights. But what they took back on the plane with them from a weekend in the Land of Lincoln just might be enough to propel them to another January bowl game.