Penn State's monthlong pop quiz is over, and while the questions may have seemed a little quirky, they were hardly difficult if you'd studied at all:
What's a Chanticleer?
What are these Beavers doing in Beaver Stadium?
Orange you glad Syracuse is back on the schedule and that Temple seemingly never left?
The Nittany Lions aced it, of course, and even if it was about as satisfying as successfully identifying the direction that giant E is facing at the top of the eye chart, there are worse ways than 4-0 to confront the first serious exam of a football autumn laced with compelling ponderables.
Penn State enters into its 16th Big Ten Conference excursion tomorrow night at home against Illinois and kinetic quarterback Juice Williams. When it comes out the other end in late November, what will await its faded icon of a coach? In or out? For the moment, it's more a matter of up or down.
Can Joe Paterno, at 81, coach from down on the sideline for an entire game anymore or must he head upstairs to a press box that shares its general atmospheric strata with the television blimps?
"I'm just worried about keeping myself awake until 12 o'clock at night by the time it's over," Paterno said this week.
As I might have mentioned, the opponents most capable of sending the old coach into a fast snooze have fully served their purpose. Illinois, by jarring contrast, returns 16 starters from the team that went 6-2 in the conference last fall. That should keep Paterno up tomorrow night the way Williams has kept defensive coordinator Tom Bradley up all week.
"In games like this, the option is the great equalizer," Bradley said on the phone yesterday. "You think of something that you want to do strategically, something you think can work, and then you think, 'What if they run the option against it?'
"And then you throw it out."
The long-presumed successor to Paterno, Bradley is himself the protagonist in another of the compelling narratives. Bradley's endless career predicament is now merely the latest addendum to the thick volume of memorable Beano Cook quotes: "The only person waiting longer for somebody to retire than Tom Bradley is Prince Charles."
There's no particular justice for Bradley in the fact that just as Paterno appears more primed than ever for retirement, Penn State's defensive inventories are highly unstable due to injury and various levels of legal and disciplinary entanglement.
Depending on how you care to count it, the decorated defensive coordinator figures the unit that presents itself to the Illini tomorrow night includes not more than six and perhaps as few as four of the starters he'd planned, at varying points, to deploy this season.
In other words, Bradley has faced one of his most difficult challenges at not exactly the best time.
"I think it has been a big challenge, just trying to develop some depth," he said. "It started after last spring. Just as soon as you start to get better, you knock on wood, and then we lost two starters and lost two more. Really, in our front four, we thought we'd be in position to use eight interchangeably, but that hasn't happened."
Bradley's ability to fashion a top defense, questioned pointedly for some time after he inherited the coordinator's job from Jerry Sandusky, is no longer in dispute. State has been found among the top 15 in the country in total defense and scoring defense each of the past four years. The current patchwork version has seven interceptions in four games while holding opposition ball carriers to 1.8 yards per flop.
Paterno is pretty sure none of it will mean much tomorrow after dark.
"They are going to move the football, and we're not going to contain them," said the head coach about a Ron Zook team that just got past the University of Louisiana at Lafayette (ooh-La-La), 20-17. "They were beaten by Missouri, and I think Missouri scored 48 points to beat them. They're going to score points."
Missouri actually got 52 in that one, enabling the Tigers to win by 10. Though it sounds like Joe expects to win, maybe, 49-48, behind the first offense in school history to score 40 or more in each of the first four games, Bradley hopes for an evening a little less manic.
"I don't know if we can afford to look at it that way," Bradley said. "They can do a lot of things, and we're gonna have our hands full. With Williams, you've got to know the address he's at, because he can be in another ZIP code real quick. He has tremendous vision. We have some things we've put in [specifically] for him. Hopefully, they will work."
Williams has thrown five picks so far, so I expect Bradley's packages might induce a couple more. If they don't work, if nothing works defensively tomorrow night, all the Penn State story lines come to a full boil.
Gene Collier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1283.