UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Funny what you think about when you're sitting with almost 108,000 people at Beaver Stadium, watching 34-point underdog Buffalo take a 3-0 lead deep into the second quarter against Penn State.
I was thinking the Nittany Lions have a big shot at the Big Ten Conference championship, a 12-0 season, maybe even a spot in the national championship game if all but one team loses a game.
And, no, mind-expanding narcotics were not involved.
It's not that Penn State is such a great team or that the 45-24 spanking it came back to put on Buffalo yesterday was so impressive. It is not close to being a great offensive team despite a career-high four touchdown passes from quarterback Anthony Morelli, the fact it appears to have found a running back -- Rodney Kinlaw instead of Austin Scott -- and the big lift it got from the return of big-time tight end Andrew Quarless, who most assuredly didn't celebrate his two touchdown catches with anything stronger than a Diet Coke last night after sitting out the first two games because of underage drinking. The Penn State defense is much closer to being a great unit, thanks to a solid secondary and terrific linebackers Dan Connor and Sean Lee, but the young defensive front still must prove it can stand up to a big, powerful opponent that wants to run the ball.
It's that the Big Ten looks to be so weak. It's also that the schedule sets up just right for Penn State. All but one of its tougher games are at home. Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Purdue must come to Beaver Stadium, which has become so raucous that "We determine the snap count" T-shirts are selling as fast as they can be printed. Good luck with that.
But, still, there is Michigan.
Isn't there always Michigan?
Penn State has a game Saturday at the Big House, where it hasn't won since Joe Paterno was a young man and the team's stars were named Wally Richardson, Curtis Enis and Kim Herring. The year was 1997. Penn State is 0-8 against Michigan since then, easily the longest stretch of futility of the Paterno era.
Four times, the Nittany Lions were blown out by Michigan, most painfully in '97 when they were 7-0 and ranked No. 2 only to be whipped at home, 34-8. You can make that five blowouts if you count Michigan's 17-10 win at Happy Valley last season when Penn State never really was in the game, lost its two top quarterbacks -- Morelli and Daryll Clark -- to concussions and ran for minus-14 yards.
But those aren't the games Paterno and Penn State people remember most. They remember the 27-24 overtime loss at Michigan in '02 when a catch late in the game by Penn State's Tony Johnson was ruled out of bounds, a call that prompted an irate Paterno to scream at the Big Ten brass to take a closer look at their game officials. Surely, they remember the 27-25 loss at Michigan in '05 when the Wolverines -- a mediocre team with a 3-3 record -- scored the winning touchdown with no time left after two seconds were mysteriously added to the clock in the final minute.
"That one really hurt," Penn State center A.Q. Shipley said yesterday. "I remember [defensive tackle] Anthony Adams saying how he couldn't believe his senior class had to leave Penn State without ever beating Michigan in five years."
Penn State lost more than a game that day. It lost a chance at a national title; it finished 11-1.
"I still think about Breaston," Lee said of former Michigan return man Steve Breaston, whose 41-yard kickoff return set up the winning touchdown. "I was on the kickoff coverage team. I beat my man and saw a hole in the wedge. Instead of just filling it, I tried to blast the guy. I often think what if I had made that tackle. There were a lot of 'what ifs' that day."
The Penn State players promised not to play those deadly mind games this week, but that won't be easy. They'll be reminded dozens of times between now and kickoff that they can't beat Michigan.
"Eight in a row? Has it been that many?" wide receiver Deon Butler asked. "I just know it's been two. That's enough ...
"The guys on this team don't want to hear about the past because we weren't here in the past. This game is about this season, about what we can do."
It was easy to like Penn State's chances after Michigan started 0-2 with awful losses to Appalachian State and Oregon. But now? After Michigan rebounded to destroy a shockingly inept Notre Dame team, 38-0, yesterday, I'm thinking Penn State can't get it done, that Michigan still is Michigan and too many strange things happen to the Nittany Lions when they play there.
But I'm also thinking this:
If Penn State finds a way to win, it's going to go 12-0.
Yeah, it's a really big game at the Big House.
Ron Cook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .