UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Our eyes tell us Penn State is barely better than a mediocre college football team. It has no quarterback, even though it plays two. Its offense is pretty much Silas Redd right, Silas Redd left and Silas Redd up the middle. It struggled to beat Illinois, 10-7, Saturday on a snowy day at Beaver Stadium when its outstanding defense forced four turnovers and blocked a punt; when Illinois had a touchdown called back by penalty, botched a gimme field goal late in the first half and missed another from 42 yards as time expired.
But then we look at the Big Ten Conference standings. Right there in black and white, it reads Penn State is 8-1 overall and 5-0 in the Leaders Division. It is the only unbeaten team in league play. What are we supposed to make of this Penn State squad?
Do we think it is awfully lucky? That is has played the soft Big Ten opponents on its schedule and still must face a brutal gauntlet of games against Nebraska, at Ohio State and at Wisconsin after its off week next weekend? That it was pummeled by Alabama Sept. 10, the only time it lined up against a college power?
Or do we conclude this Penn State bunch is extraordinarily resilient? That it has the guts, want-to and character to somehow find ways to win close games, the proof its six wins by 10 points or fewer?
I say it's luck.
Penn State coach Joe Paterno says otherwise.
"We've had to struggle, but these kids stick together," Paterno said after his Nittany Lions gave him his 409th win, nudging him past former Grambling legend Eddie Robinson as the winningest coach in Division I history. "They keep their poise. They don't panic."
I'll give the Penn State players credit for all of that after watching them pull out this latest win. When they took possession at their 20, down 7-3, with 3:05 left, I didn't give them a snowball's chance in you-know-where of coming back.
"Did I have any doubts?" Paterno asked, fairly chuckling as he repeated a question. "Sure, I had doubts."
To that point, Penn State had 129 yards of offense. It failed to complete a pass in the second and third quarters, although Paterno has to take some blame for that. He played Rob Bolden at quarterback for all but the final three plays of the second quarter. Bolden was sacked, threw four consecutive incomplete passes and lost a fumble. You wanted to hide your eyes every time he dropped back to pass.
Paterno wisely went back to starter Matt McGloin in the second half and, although McGloin hardly played like Tom Brady, he did lead Penn State on the winning touchdown drive. Redd scored it on a 3-yard run, completing his 30-carry, 137-yard performance.
Penn State really was lucky to win.
It has been incredibly fortunate all season.
Penn State can change my mind, though, by beating Nebraska Nov. 12. That figures to be an emotional day at Beaver Stadium because it almost certainly will be Paterno's final home game.
But I'm having a hard time imagining a Penn State win unless it suddenly gets better play from McGloin, who was 9 of 24 for 98 yards and one interception Saturday. I write that fully realizing the Nittany Lions have had great success under Paterno when he has extra time to get them ready. They are 32-16 after off weeks with 14 wins in their past 19 such games since 1994. Of course, Penn State also is 24-12-1 in bowl games under the great Paterno.
"We have proven to ourselves ... that we'll stick together and make some things happen," Paterno said. "Whether that will be good enough down the road, I don't know. It wasn't good enough against Alabama, but we'll see."