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November 17, 2005

Penn State could end title drought

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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - Kerry Collins, Ki-Jana Carter and Kyle Brady walked on to the Beaver Stadium field on a cool, dreary April day to the cheers of Penn State fans.

Other members of the Nittany Lions' undefeated 1994 team were also on hand that afternoon for a ceremony during the spring scrimmage to honor the squad that won the school's first Big Ten crown.

Penn State hasn't won another since, but maybe that April event was an omen.

The fifth-ranked Nittany Lions (9-1, 6-1) can secure at least a share of their second Big Ten title if they beat Michigan State on Saturday.

"It's been talked about a lot ... to really bring back Penn State to where things were before," linebacker Paul Posluszny said about possibly ending the 11-year drought. "That would really put us over the top."

Few people thought that Penn State would leave the upper half of the conference after the Nittany Lions joined the Big Ten in 1993.

"I didn't think it would be 11 years before we would contend for the Big Ten title," said Wally Richardson, a backup quarterback on the 1994 team who now works as an academic adviser at Penn State.

"But one thing about being in a conference," he said. "Everyone has the potential to beat each other up."

Penn State was seen as the new bully on the block when it came into the Big Ten, a likely perennial contender from the East in a Midwest-centered league dominated by Ohio State and Michigan.

Initially, Michigan State was the only school that "really embraced" Penn State early on in the Big Ten, coach Joe Paterno said.

In fact, the teams have played their final regular season game against each other since 1993 after Paterno was approached by George Perles, who coached the Spartans in the early 1990s.

"Later on as we went along, there were other guys in the league that talked to me about how glad that they were that we were in the league. Some of them, obviously, no," Paterno said. "There are still some people, I think, who wonder why we are in the league."

Penn State was third in its inaugural Big Ten season before a 12-0 campaign in 1994 that included a conference title, a Rose Bowl win and a No. 2 finish behind national champion Nebraska. With an attack led by Heisman finalists Collins and Carter, along with Brady and Bobby Engram, Penn State led the nation in scoring (49.7 points per game) and total offense (520 yards per game.)

Penn State slipped to third in the Big Ten the next three seasons before sliding further down the standings.

The low point came in 2003 and 2004, when the Nittany Lions won just seven games total and only three in the Big Ten, finishing ninth in the 11-team conference each season.

Now Penn State is back atop the conference and in the national spotlight behind a dominant defense led by Posluszny (106 tackles) and a much-improved offensive attack sparked by quarterback Michael Robinson (15 passing touchdowns, 10 rushing TDs).

The Lions are tied for first in the Big Ten with No. 9 Ohio State with 6-1 league records. With a win, Penn State would grab the league's automatic berth in the BCS - even if Ohio State beats No. 17 Michigan on Saturday - since the Lions already beat the Buckeyes last month.

Penn State alums are beaming these days and happy to see their old coach back on top.

"He's caught so much grief up there the past four or five years. He hasn't changed," said Collins in between practices with the Oakland Raiders. "His attitude has been the same and (he) has kept doing the things he's believed in."

"I hope they finish out the season with a couple wins," he added. "I know it will do wonders for their program."

Engram, now with the Seattle Seahawks, has been following the Lions on pay-per-view this season.

"I've been saying all along, it's not Joe," Engram said. "They were playing a lot of young guys during those years they were losing. They didn't have guys who were making plays. Now, they've got great playmakers on offense ... In the Big Ten, that's the key. You have to score points."

Though Michigan State (5-5, 2-5) has lost five of its last six, the Spartans lead the Big Ten in total offense (506.9 yards per game) with quarterback Drew Stanton.

"It would definitely mean a lot," Robinson said about a Big Ten crown. "But that's a question, if things go our way on Saturday, that's probably a question for after the game."

For more coverage of the Penn State Nittany Lions, check out BlueWhiteIllustrated.com.



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