UNIVERSITY PARK - Penn State's seasons typically are measured by how the Nittany Lions fare against the Michigans, Pitts, Nebraskas, Notre Dames, Ohio States and Alabamas of the college football world.
This year, though, their most important game might have come with Saturday's 24-0 win against Kent State at Beaver Stadium.
Try not to do a spit take.
Penn State wasn't expected to beat Alabama. Many anticipated a performance similar to the one that played out - minus, maybe the really shoddy tackling - before Rob Bolden looked so good against Youngstown State and a couple of the Tide's top players being out fired upset dreams. Very few, with good reason, thought the Lions were going to beat Ohio State or Iowa on the road, and that hasn't changed either.
As the Tide rolled at Bryant-Denny Stadium, though, all the question marks that already existed about these Lions suddenly seemed to get an exclamation point added after them.
Most coaches will tell you that they learn the most about a team when it faces adversity. It's not entirely coachspeak. Just think about how many times you've seen a team controlling a game until one thing goes against it, and everything turns around, or loses that one game it was expected to win and falls apart to completely miss the playoffs or a BCS bowl.
The Nittany Lions were definitely facing adversity after Alabama, and Kent State, by the luck of the schedule, happened to be the game that would show whether the Lions could bounce back of if there'd be a mental carryover.
"It was critical [we play well],'' Lion running back Stephfon Green said.
The Lions passed the test, if not exactly with flying colors.
"I think we made some [progress],'' Lion coach Joe Paterno said. "We still have a long way to go. Where we gained in one spot, we went a little backwards in other spots. I think if they keep working at it we'll wind up being a decent football team, but we've got a ways to go yet.''
Believing in one's self is a major part of performing on the big stage. One could understand if Penn State's players and coaches had doubts after being dominated in Tuscaloosa.
"It's a huge deal, because we've got a lot of new guys out there,' ' linebacker Michael Mauti said. "You have to be flying around and making plays, and you can't do that if you don't have confidence in what you're doing.
"It's the games that get you confidence. It's not practice. That helps a little bit, but once you get out in the games and doing it again [really builds it]. That's why everyone was looking forward to [Kent State], so we could put it all behind us.''
All in all, it wasn't the ideal rebound effort, hampered by a couple of ill-conceived Bolden throws that got intercepted and some play calling in the second quarter that seemed to stunt Penn State's momentum.
Penn State, though, earned that momentum, showing no signs of a hangover by picking off Kent State quarterback Spencer Keith early and scoring on its first two possessions. One never got the impression the Golden Flashes were really in the game after that.
"Coming off a loss, you want to see a team come back with some fire, with some fight in them,'' defensive tackle Devon Still, who was credited with 21/2 tackles for loss, said. "I think we did that today.''
Taking an almost defeatist stance following the Alabama loss, Paterno himself seemed to bounce back - Bradley and Mauti said he even got involved in physically showing defensive players tackling technique in practices leading up to the Kent State game.
"They were really intense,'' receiver Derek Moye said. "I think the coaches think that we left some stuff out there against Alabama, so they were tough on us this week.''
Did Saturday's win tell the country that Penn State is a definite threat to go into Columbus or Iowa City later this fall and pull off upsets? No. But it may have put them on the road to being able to compete, if the Lions can build on some of the things they were able to do Saturday.
"If anybody would say that they're satisfied, then they're playing the wrong game,'' Green said.
The ultimate goals apparently haven't changed.
"We can still win the Rose Bowl and the Big Ten championship, and we still have a lot to play for,'' defensive captain Ollie Ogbu said. "There are nine games plus a bowl game left. That's a lot of football.''
Cmor can be reached at 946-7440 or email@example.com.