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Beating bad teams not all that impressive for PSU, but routing them is

November 4, 2012 - Cory Giger
Considering that there are three games left, these are three of the biggest things we learned about Penn State from Saturday's 34-9 trouncing of a very poor Purdue team.

1. The Nittany Lions no longer play down to their level of competition: It's been blowout city, which is a testament to Bill O'Brien keeping his foot on the pedal even with big leads.

There's a good news, bad news element to keep in mind.

First the bad news. People should be careful thinking PSU is better than it really is based on being 6-3 and beating some awful Big Ten competition. Purdue and Illinois are both 0-5 in the league, while Iowa (2-3, just lost to Indiana) is falling apart. The non-con win over Temple isn't anything to brag about, either, because the Owls have collapsed with three straight blowout losses in the Big East.

The good news, though, is in the way Penn State has beaten those teams. The games haven't been close -- the Purdue rout, 35-7 vs. Illinois, 38-14 vs. Iowa, 24-13 in a game that wasn't that close vs. Temple -- the vastly inferior opponents never really had a chance, and those three Big Ten wins were all on the road.

Joe Paterno's teams often had a way of letting inferior teams hang around with his conservative game plan.

O'Brien has a way of turning those kind of games into routs.

Penn State beat Purdue 23-18 at home last season. The teams have very similar rosters this year, but O'Brien's game plan and vastly superior offensive scheme helped the Lions throttle the Boilermakers on Saturday.

O'Brien was still running the NASCAR offense and still throwing the ball up 34-3. Maybe that's how it will be all the time, but there's also something else to keep in mind.

O'Brien clearly holds grudges, like against Illinois' Tim Beckman, and doesn't mind running up the score against a coach like that. Purdue's Danny Hope, at Big Ten media days before the season, didn't come right out and say he would recruit PSU players, but he did suggest he would do whatever he could to improve his team.

Not much was made of that going into the game, like it was against Illinois, but O'Brien seemed to enjoy rubbing it in against Hope.

O'Brien plays to win and, obviously, doesn't know the meaning of the word conservative. While that might hurt him occasionally in some games, like it did with over aggressiveness against Ohio State, Penn State probably will reap the benefits more often than not because he's not going to let up against opponents.

2. There's still a lot to play for: The Nittany Lions can't play in the Big Ten title game, but they could have a big say in who does, for both the Leaders and Legends divisions.

With no bowl possibility for four years, one prevailing thought has been that PSU would have little motivation late in the season during the NCAA sanctions. That might be the case during one or more of the next three years, but the Lions have a great opportunity to be a big spoiler this season.

Nebraska is 4-1 and tied with Michigan atop the Legends Division. The Cornhuskers have the tiebreaker over the Wolverines from their head-to-head win, but a Penn State victory in Lincoln this week would make things tougher on Nebraska.

Now, Michigan probably will lose to Ohio State, so even if the Cornhuskers fall to PSU, they'll still have a strong shot to win the division if they finish with two league losses.

If Wisconsin (3-2 in Big Ten) beats Indiana (2-3) this week, the Badgers will lock up the Leaders Division berth in the Big Ten title game. But if the Hoosiers win, it would make Penn State's final two games very meaningful.

Indiana visits Beaver Stadium in two weeks, and if that's coming off a win against Wisconsin, the Lions would be in position to spoil things for the Hoosiers.

Wisconsin comes to Penn State to close the regular season, and depending on what happens with Indiana the rest of the way, the Badgers might need a win there to capture the division.

Conversely, if Wisconsin beats Indiana this week, Penn State's final two games could have little luster. Thanksgiving break starts for the students Nov. 16 -- most will leave after Friday classes and may not return until the Sunday after the Wisconsin game -- so their absence for the final two home games could make for some lackluster environments.

3. O'Brien benching Bill Belton on Saturday sent a great message to this team and future teams: Work hard in practice or you're not going to play, even if you're a starter.

It's become clear that Zach Zwinak, who had 134 yards Saturday, is the best running back on the team, so it wasn't a surprise to see him start against Purdue. It was very surprising, though, that Belton played only one snap all night, leading everyone to believe he was injured.

"He wasn't hurt," O'Brien said before adding, "You've got to earn it on the practice field."

O'Brien noted he talked to Belton about that, and hopefully the message got through.

"That's how Coach O'Brien coaches," running back Michael Zordich said. "You work in practice for Saturdays, and if you've had a good week, you're going to play. That's how he does it, and that just makes you compete."

If O'Brien can bench the starting running back, it should reverberate to everyone on the team that they'd better give their best effort all the time. And when things start to get rough over the next few years because of the sanctions, O'Brien demanding that his players give it their all will help keep the team as competitive as it can be.

SUBHD: Afterthoughts ...

* Nebraska opened up as an 8 1-2 point favorite over PSU, but the number dropped to 7 just a few hours later.

* I was thinking the point spread would be about 5, but with tackle Jordan Hill unlikely to play because of his knee injury, that's a big loss for the Lions' defense going against a good dual-threat quarterback in Taylor Martinez.

* If Purdue is serious about its football program, Danny Hope will not be the head coach next season. That was a bad hire by Boilermakers athletic director Morgan Burke. Hope is 19-27 overall and 10-19 in the Big Ten in his four seasons, and it's obvious this year's team has quit on him.

Cory Giger is the host of "Sports Central" from 4 to 6 p.m. daily on ESPN Radio 1430 WVAM. Reach him at 949-7031 or @CoryGiger on Twitter.

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