IOWA CITY, Iowa - Longtime fans who flipped on Penn State's game Saturday night probably did a double-take.
We all did.
Were it not for those unmistakable white uniforms - and even those are different with the names on the jerseys - the Nittany Lions would not have been recognized as they pummeled Iowa, 38-14, before 70,585 shocked and subdued fans at Kinnick Stadium.
This clearly is not our dad's Nittany Lion football team but with respect to even our dad's Nittany Lion football team, Bill O'Brien's brand of football is not only unique to Penn State but to the Big Ten as well.
"It's as well as they've played this year, I thought," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "They had it going tonight."
No one can argue that, and fortunately for the Big Ten, the Lions are ineligible for the conference title game, because this much is clear: They're the best team in the league right now.
Ohio State, fortunate to survive Purdue in a game effort after the Buckeyes lost starting quarterback Braxton Miller, will have something to say about it Saturday in the Ineligible Bowl at Beaver Stadium, but no other team has been nearly as dominant as the Lions.
"We have a very, very difficult challenge ahead with one of the best teams in the country," O'Brien said. "We'll go back to the drawing board."
They'll do so hearing a buzz that has engulfed Penn State and the college football world.
"I think the guys have gotten better each week," O'Brien said.
Known throughout the Joe Paterno era as a program built around defense, special teams and conservative offense, O'Brien has brought a wildly-entertaining style of an up-tempo pace filled with chance-taking innovation while the defense has been aggressive and opportunistic.
The combination has far exceeded expectations, particularly after the 0-2 start in which even the most diehard of Penn State fans were staring hard at a long four years through the NCAA sanctions.
While most in the media predicted a Nittany Lion victory here, almost no one could foresee a blowout, in a hostile night atmosphere, against Ferentz, a 10-year nemesis.
Least of all Ferentz, who said afterward, "I thought we'd have a tight ballgame."
But even with turning the ball over on downs at the Iowa 30 early in the game and later fumbling in the end zone early in the third quarter, Penn State was never threatened.
"I know when I look at the films, I'll say we can play better," O'Brien said.
Penn State has been fortunate for many years to enjoy one of the most passionate followings in sports. And yet, almost as many as the six-figure crowds that regularly filled Beaver Stadium have taken their turn calling the Nittany Lion Hotline show over the years to plead with Paterno to throw to the tight end.
That's no longer an issue as Kyle Carter is an emerging star and the position caught eight passes in the first half alone and 11 for the game.
The frantic pace O'Brien has brought has also worn down and kept defenses on their heels during the Lions' five-game winning streak and 3-0 start to conference play. Penn State ran 99 offensive plays against Northwestern two weeks ago and rung up another 50 in the first half and 90 for the game Saturday.
And the way this staff has developed Matt McGloin, the Big Ten's best passer, has been nothing short of remarkable. Consider: McGloin's touchdown-interception ratio on the season is now 14-2 while he climbs up the career passing charts despite being a part-time starter for the previous two years.
"Though seven games," O'Brien said, "I don't think you can say enough about Matt. I'm proud of him."
The same can be said about the entire team - OK, the special teams still have some work to do - and from the way the Lions bounced up the Kinnick Stadium tunnel, wearing ear-to-ear grins, it's clear this is a program, despite the sanctions, feeling good about itself.
And one that has bought into O'Brien and his largely new coaching staff.
"I believe when you play football at Penn State, you have a helluva lot to play for - a thousand lettermen, a tradition and a student body," O'Brien said. "I believe we have a lot to play for and a lot to coach for."
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.