STATE COLLEGE - Beating Temple 24-13 and Navy 34-7 sounds about right for a Penn State football team.
Throw in one of Sam Ficken's four missed field goals from the one-point loss at Virginia and the Nittany Lions are 3-1.
If the offseason NCAA sanctions and ensuing player defections didn't dampen expectations for Penn State, then a 10-point loss to Ohio to start the season did. But in the three weeks since, Bill O'Brien has Penn State in about as good a shape as can be expected entering Big Ten play next week at Illinois.
The Nittany Lions, ineligible for the next four Big Ten title games, open Big Ten play looking at least as strong as can be in three years despite that 2-2 record. The upcoming level of competition doesn't appear as scary either, as Illinois struggled with Louisiana Tech Saturday and Ohio State endures its own adjustments to Urban Meyer despite a 4-0 start, and Wisconsin sits at 3-1 with an average margin of victory of less than a touchdown.
The last two Penn State non-conference Septembers under Joe Paterno saw 3-1 starts, with now-vacated victories over the likes of Temple and Kent State. Those teams were clouded by quarterback uncertainty before Matt McGloin kept beating out Rob Bolden.
This team, which hopes to have first-string tailback Bill Belton back from injury next week, has Matt McGloin playing as well as ever. He hit 9 different receivers for 318 yards and a touchdown on 24 of 36 passing Saturday, showing further adaptation to O'Brien's new offense. McGloin admitted to feeling more comfortable now that he's not worried about being pulled for mistakes. He has 9 touchdowns and one interception through four games, the second-best touchdown-interception ratio in the Big Ten so far and improvements over his career 22-14 ratio entering this season.
"It's a great feeling, relief. You don't have to worry about how you play. You do, but you don't feel like you have to force this ball here or make this play there," said McGloin. "You eventually learn that two first downs and a punt aren't always a bad thing."
The Lions' defense is playing better under defensive coordinator Ted Roof who, while he won an NCAA title with Auburn in 2010, coached defenses known for making and allowing big plays. The Ohio loss raised some questions among Penn State fans when the team allowed 499 yards, but the Nittany Lions held Virginia and now Temple under 300.
"We've seen flashes, but not the whole picture," said linebacker Michael Mauti. "Guys are getting experience in games, and that'll come as we get better. We're not close yet."
The 2-2 record would have crushed bowl and BCS hopes in years past, but this year is different with just 64 days left in the season until the Nov. 24 finale with Wisconsin. That record doesn't really matter. If Penn State wants to make an on-field statement, it can at least finish the season on top of the Leaders Division standings, which has nothing to do with starting 4-0 or 0-4 or anywhere in between.
"We only have 12 opportunities to play and we have a special senior class. They know they only have eight left," said O'Brien. "They work hard, they care about each other, and it's a fun group to be around, like in many ways the other teams I've been involved with whether it's Georgia Tech, Maryland, or the New England Patriots."
And they are off to a good start.
Brigandi is sports editor at The Sun-Gazette. He may be reached at email@example.com.