UNIVERSITY PARK - In his assessment of the Nittany Lions' 52-3 win over Eastern Illinois, Joe Paterno admitted what many suspected all week long.
"I think it was a good workout for us," he said Saturday.
A "workout" indeed. Be it a glorified scrimmage or a real game against a Division I-AA team, this concluded the first half of the Nittany Lions' 2009 season.
Penn State has played six games and stands at 5-1, but how much do we really know about the Nittany Lions?
We know that against the one decent team they faced so far, Iowa, their offense managed just one touchdown in a 21-10 loss.
The other five games, including four from a non-conference smorgasbord that should be an embarrassment to any major program with Penn State's history, were won handily.
To that end, now truly begins 2009, and with it looms six opponents that will define the season much more so than the five on whom the Lions have feasted.
In Minnesota, Ohio State and even Indiana - each at home - and road foes Northwestern and certainly Michigan and Michigan State, the Nits find six compatible opponents that the Lions are capable of beating and six opponents that are capable of beating them.
The message was permeating the Nittany Lion locker room moments after Eastern Illinois limped to its bus, $450,000 paycheck in hand.
"We've got six tough games left, six Big Ten games, and we have to take them one at a time and see where we are," JoePa said. "We're not near as good as we'll have to be, but we're getting better."
Paterno said he's pleased with the development of the positions that were inexperienced entering the season. He cited the maturation of the receivers and the secondary and feels the offensive line, another question mark, is "making progress."
There's no doubt the defense has played well. It has dominated opponents, has yet to allow a touchdown in the first half of any game this year and played well enough to beat Iowa.
It also has not been tested by the kind of passing offenses it will see later this year, starting with Minnesota.
"There's so much room for improvement," defensive coordinator Tom Bradley said. "We didn't tackle that well today, and we've blown a couple in the secondary that they [opponent] didn't find the [open] guy. The schedule is certainly more challenging as we move ahead."
The offense has improved since Iowa but quality of competition (Illinois and cousin Eastern Illinois) has to be considered.
The Lions are running the ball better, and quarterback Daryll Clark has shaken off his Iowa blues.
"It's a brand new season," Clark said. "After the Iowa disappointment, we wanted to close the door on that, and we did a good job at Illinois, and now we have another tough team coming in here this week."
It remains clear that Clark must stay healthy. After a third-quarter run in which his quarterback was sandwiched by three Panther defenders, JoePa moved a step closer to Mike McQueary's throat to implore the coaches upstairs (Galen Hall, Jay Paterno) to stop running Clark.
That's because backup Kevin Newsome, who was finally summoned on the third series of the third quarter, is too green. Newsome did rush for 49 yards on seven carries, including a 9-yarder to close the scoring, and completed four of five for 34 yards.
But he also fumbled twice.
"He's not anywhere near as proficient as he's got to be for us to win a tough game," JoePa said.
"Kevin should come out of this with some confidence," quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno said.
Both Paternos were pleased with the team's mental approach against an opponent that no one was excited about.
That will change this week as the Lions can resume their sights on at least sharing their third Big Ten title in the last five years.
"We've got to get a tough, four-quarter game and win in at the end," JayPa said. "We didn't do it against Iowa, but I think that's coming. We're in a playoff to win the Big Ten, and we're in single-elimination. We lose one, and we're probably out."
One thing's for sure: There are no more "workouts" left on the schedule.
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or email@example.com.