STATE COLLEGE - Many postgame questions to Penn State players after their 23-18 victory over Purdue Saturday focused on whether they deserved more respect after a 6-1 start or if it was better to be lucky than good. The real question is if it's better to be entertaining than good.
Entertaining football, to most, would be star offensive players making big plays. Save for a few exceptions, Penn State generally doesn't play that way. Its brand of exciting football tends to be star defensive players making big plays.
Entertaining football might also involve a coaching icon pacing the sidelines and harassing officials, even better if he's an octogenarian. But the only in-game shots of Joe Paterno Saturday were through the pressbox window, as he said he was afraid of getting run over again on the sidelines.
So for Penn State in 2011, using a flawed rotation between two flawed quarterbacks playing behind a compromised offensive line running plays called by a compromised coaching staff will have to count as entertaining. And for the third consecutive week and fourth time this season, it at least led to a dramatic finish. Hey, everyone remembers how much fun the 1994 Nittany Lions were to watch, but how riveting were those 28-point second-half leads anyway?
On Saturday, one better suited for launching kites than footballs, Penn State overcame its share of off-target passes, tipped balls and a curious penalty to become every college sports information department's two favorite words - bowl eligible.
Up 20-12 and driving into Purdue territory midway through the fourth quarter, Matt McGloin's pass to Bill Belton in the swirling southeast corner of the field was tipped, intercepted, and returned 55 yards by Albert Evans to set up a touchdown and close the gap to two points.
"God, that interception, what the hell," said PSU assistant Jay Paterno. "We just have to make every one close. We score, that makes it 27-12 and we're in control, but it bounced off I don't know how many body parts."
The play was fun to watch, as was Chaz Powell's 92-yard near touchdown on a kickoff return, called back 15 yards for excessive celebration because he threw the ball over his head. That play only led to a field goal and a victory never secure until a fourth-and-1 sneak in the final minute.
This game may or may not push Penn State up into the Top 25, and if fans buy into this team, claims of disrespect will emerge. The first official BCS standings come out this week, and a simulation last week at bcsguru.com that counted the Harris, coaches, and 5 of 6 computer polls put the Nittany Lions at No. 26.
Some have questioned whether Penn State is the worst one-loss team in the country, and if you count only BCS conference schools that might be possible. But that's a relative statement, and can't be made without careful study of the other contenders.
Jay Paterno, for one, tried to compare this team with the 1985 Nittany Lions, underdogs who won early-season nail-biters, finished 11-1 and No. 3. JayPa said he reminded the players of that, but didn't seem to mention one big difference - the 1985 team actually beat Alabama, 19-17, to establish itself as a serious contender in October. The 1985 guys also won by two at Maryland to open when the Terps were a preseason title contender.
"We're 6-1, who tries to quantify 6-1? The only thing I take over this is 7-0," said Jay Paterno. "People can say what they want."
This year's team lost 27-11 to Alabama last month, making its close games vs. Temple, Iowa, and Indiana feel less satisfying than the 1985 edition's squeakers over Temple, East Carolina, Rutgers, and Syracuse.
That 1985 team went to the Orange Bowl, where it lost the national title to Oklahoma. That ending doesn't seem possible with this team - unless it does the unthinkable and go 11-1 - especially not with unbeatens Alabama and LSU looking like a possible BCS semifinal Nov. 5 and unbeatens Oklahoma and Oklahoma State having another in December.
So the Nittany Lions will probably do what they often do, fall up in the bowl selection process because their school travels well and the TV networks like Joe Paterno any way they can show him. Capital One Bowl brochures for the Jan. 2 game in Orlando could be found in the Beaver Stadium pressbox.
That's going to have to be good enough.
Brigandi is sports editor at The Sun-Gazette. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.