The Penn State Nittany Lions have witnessed the kind of unfortunate events to begin this season that you would normally hang a losing record on and pronounce a team's last rights by mid-October. There have been season-ending injuries to veteran leaders (defensive end Jerome Hayes, linebacker Sean Lee), suspensions (defensive linemen Maurice Evans and Abe Koroma, tight end Andrew Quarless), players dismissed from the team (cornerback Willie Harriott), and question marks at varying positions, especially at quarterback and the defensive line. These types of off-field controversies usually add up to a disaster of a year.
Apparently, somebody forgot to tell that to Penn State.
So far, the Lions have sprinted out of the gate, winning their first two games by an average score of 55-12, beating Coastal Carolina and Oregon State at home. They have been led by an explosive offense that has scored points seemingly at will, especially sophomore tailback Evan Royster, whose 141-yard, three-touchdown performance last week against Oregon State earned him a share of the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week award.
Royster has run for 205 yards on just 25 carries (an eye-popping 8.2 yards per carry) and six touchdowns in his first two games of the season, the first ever to do so under head coach Joe Paterno. He is also the first to score as many touchdowns in consecutive games since Larry Johnson ran for eight in the final two games of the regular season in 2002.
Starting quarterback Daryll Clark has also answered the call to replace Anthony Morelli, setting career highs in passing yards (215), rushing yards (61) and total offense (276 yards), along with three touchdowns (two passing, one rushing) against Oregon State. He and Royster lead the charge of a well-balanced offense that is averaging 524 total yards per game.
Paterno has credited the offensive line as the starting point of their success, a veteran unit led by senior center and team co-captain A.Q. Shipley.
"I don't care how many plays you put up there and how fancy you think you are," Paterno said at his weekly press conference. "You have to block, you have to execute.
"We've got a long, long way to be a good football team. A long way to go. We've got a lot of work ahead of us. But if we didn't have a good offensive line, I don't know whether we'd get there."
The defense has performed above and beyond expectations, despite an obvious lack of depth for one reason or another. They have allowed only 296 yards of total offense per game, including an average of only 72 yards rushing.
"I think the defensive coaches have done a great job when you consider the fact that they've had to play a different group almost every week because of injuries and other things," Paterno said. "I think the coaching staff, the defensive coaches have done a terrific job of holding them together, and making sure that what we did put in and what we did, these kids could handle and do a good job of working with them on the field. So, yeah, I think they've done a good job."
This weekend they face their first road test of the season as they travel to Syracuse to take on the Orangemen for the first time in 18 years, revisiting what was formerly one of the best rivalries on the East Coast.
With Evans and Koroma not expected to play this week, the defensive line will be expected to work on a patchwork basis again, with Aaron Maybin and Jared Odrick replacing them as they did last week. The two replacements so far have combined for 11 total tackles, including four for losses with four sacks.
Quarless, who was suspended for the same incident as Evans and Koroma, was reinstated before the Oregon State game, but did not have any receptions playing behind Mickey Shuler on the depth chart.
"I think he looked good in the uniform," Paterno deadpanned, when asked about his decision to reinstate Quarless. "There are four people with exactly the same involvement. So I'm just trying to wait until I get this thing straightened out, and then we'll see what happens. So as far as whether the other kids are going to play or not, I'm going to play it day by day for awhile."
Paterno praised his team's ability to do the same thing, play it day by day with so much swirling around them.
"You've got to give the group of kids there that just hung in there," he said, "and were determined they weren't going to let the things that have been happening take away from all the hard work they've done and their confidence that they could get the job done.
"But they've done a great job. They really have. I think the kids appreciate the fact that these guys have not quit on them, and they didn't quit on themselves. And we've got a good spirit right now."
A spirit that has allowed them to overcome adversity early on, and will be put to the test as the season wears on.