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Road to Rose Bowl starts for No. 7 Penn State

Friday, November 14, 2008

By GENARO C. ARMAS

AP Sports Writer

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The road to the Rose Bowl starts Saturday for No. 7 Penn State.

The Nittany Lions control their own destiny when it comes to the Big Ten title. Beating banged-up Indiana and Michigan State next week would allow Penn State to lock up the conference's automatic BCS bid.

Not a bad consolation prize at all for a team that saw its national championship aspirations take a devastating blow following last weekend's loss to Iowa.

"We would be foolish to say you wouldn't be happy about it," senior linebacker Tyrell Sales said about a trip to the Rose Bowl. "I know how special it is."

Penn State (9-1, 5-1 Big Ten) isn't completely out of the national title picture, though the outlook is bleak. They need lots of help from some of the seven teams ahead of them in the BCS standings to get back into serious contention.

A 9-0 start had Penn State fans had been hopeful that 2008 could be the year in which Hall of Fame coach Joe Paterno would get a shot at a third national title.

The added drama is that the 81-year-old Paterno is in the last year of his contract, and both the school and JoePa have indicated they won't revisit the issue until after the season is complete.

Right now, the end date looks like Jan. 1. The Nittany Lions have virtually locked up a trip to a New Year's Day bowl, at the least, though Pasadena is the destination of choice.

But all the speculation will prove fruitless if Penn State doesn't address more immediate concerns, like Indiana.

"Thank God!" Paterno exclaimed sarcastically after going through 18 minutes of questioning at his news conference this week before someone asked about the Hoosiers (3-7, 1-5).

"Indiana looks very good at times. Other times, they've killed themselves," Paterno said. "They hustle. They're in the process of getting better, as a lot of good young teams are."

Paterno, among other things, is a master of talking up weaker opponents.

On paper, Saturday's game looks like a lopsided mismatch. Indiana comes into Happy Valley having lost two straight at home, including a 37-34 defeat to MAC school Central Michigan and a 55-20 rout to Wisconsin last week.

Indiana scores almost 23 points a game, ninth-best in the Big Ten. The Hoosiers are nicked up all over the field, including quarterback, where Kellen Lewis (ankle) and Ben Chappell (head) will both see action. Coach Bill Lynch said earlier this week that both were expected to be available for Penn State, which has the conference's best defense (12.4 points per game).

Defensive end Jammie Kirlew (10.5 sacks) has been a bright spot for an otherwise dismal Indiana defense, which gives up a conference-worst 414.8 yards and 32.8 points per game.

Penn State leads the Big Ten in scoring at almost 40 points a game, though it has struggled lately. Quarterback Daryll Clark hopes to rebound from his worst outing of the season at Iowa, where he was 9-of-23 passing for 86 yards, with a fourth-quarter interception.

With the secondary depleted by injury with three starters out, Indiana is a clear underdog against Nittany Lions' veteran receivers.

"They're the real deal," Lynch said. "They got the whole package."

The trip to Beaver Stadium will be as close as Indiana gets to the postseason. The Hoosiers' last visit there wasn't very memorable, a 52-7 blowout in 2003.

"We're in a situation where we're going to load up and take this as a great challenge," Lynch said. "We're not going to a bowl game. But the opportunity to go to Penn State, play in that environment ... you don't get an opportunity to do that very often."

The blue-and-white faithful are eager to welcome their team for the final two home games of the season after Penn State played four of the previous five games on the road.

Two more wins will allow Penn State's senior class to clinch at least a share of a second Big Ten title in their careers.

"Nobody even expected us to be at the position that we are in right now. We have two games left. We can still win the Big Ten, go to the Rose Bowl," senior receiver Derrick Williams said. "There's still a lot that we're fighting for."



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