UNIVERSITY PARK — It seemed like an innocuous discovery revealed by the Big Ten office earlier this month.
Yes, the league said, Penn State, along with its 2012 NCAA sanction brother Ohio State, could capture the Leaders Division trophy.
Winning a six-team division, which also includes Wisconsin, Illinois, Purdue and Indiana, wasn’t Penn State’s primary focus when the Big Ten notified the school of its policy. The Nittany Lions needed to caulk cracks created by a 24-14 season-opening loss to Ohio University.
As September reaches its final week, the Nittany Lions might be preparing for a trophy chase. Two victories have reinvigorated a group gliding past a slow start. The most recent victory, this past weekend’s 24-13 triumph over Temple, moved Penn State to 2-2.
“I think we are feeling good,” right guard John Urschel said. “The offense is starting to click. We are starting to drive the ball a little bit and putting together drives. Our defense is doing a great job of stopping the opposing team.”
The confidence stems from a solid two-game stretch in which Penn State outscored Temple and Navy by a combined 58-20. The defense has yielded little since allowing 21 second- half points against Ohio University. The offense accumulated a season- high 491 yards against Temple.
Penn State notched its first two rushing touchdowns against the Owls and bruisers Michael Zordich and Zach Zwinak combined for 169 rushing yards, softening the loss created by Bill Belton’s ankle injury, Derek Day’s separated shoulder and Curtis Dukes’ sore thigh.
Resting against the Owls might help all three players in their respective attempts recover in time for Saturday’s Big Ten opener at Illinois (2-2). Zordich suffered a knee injury against Temple, but it will take a mangled limb to prevent the determined senior from playing.
Behind an offensive line missing gigantic left tackle Donovan Smith for a second straight game because of an ankle injury, Penn State rushed for a season-high 173 yards.
The offensive line has developed depth in the past two weeks, with eight players receiving first-team snaps.
“As everyone knows, we just can’t be throwing the ball all the time,” right tackle Adam Gress said. “It’s good that we know what we are doing with the run game. We are down to our third and fourth backs and we have Zordich, who’s running the ball really well. It’s a really big step for us in the right direction, especially with the way things started.”
Other Leaders Division teams are floundering.
Illinois was embarrassed by Louisiana Tech 52-24 at home this past weekend and multiple key players, including quarterback Nate Scheelhaase and center Graham Pocic, are battered. Ohio State has posted consecutive uninspiring victories over California and UAB. Defending conference champion Wisconsin is averaging just 21.5 points per game and Bret Bielema fired new offensive line coach Mike Markuson after two games. Indiana lost to Ball State for a third straight time.
Purdue, which didn’t play this past weekend, has looked better than anybody else in the division. The Boilermakers lost to undefeated Notre Dame 20-17, but the rest of their non-conference schedule includes patsies Eastern Kentucky, Eastern Michigan and Marshall. So, in other words, check back later.
The start of the Big Ten schedule excites Penn State players.
“We’re starting to go up,” cornerback Stephon Morris said. “I wouldn’t say we’re peaking. We have a lot of things we have to fix. But we are heading in the right direction and that’s what you want to have going into Big Ten play.”
The conference opener could be a feisty affair. Illinois coaches invaded State College after this past summer’s announcement of NCAA sanctions against Penn State. First-year coach Tim Beckman and his staff received scathing criticism for their overzealous behavior, which netted reserve offensive lineman Ryan Nowicki.
Beckman gave Penn State coach Bill O’Brien a slew of motivational ploys, but judging by their public words, the Nittany Lions aren’t viewing Illinois differently than other Leaders Division opponents.
“Whatever happened over the summer is kind of over with,” linebacker Glenn Carson said. “It’s a big game for the fact that it’s our first Big Ten game. I think everyone is really excited to get into Big Ten games and just see how far we can go.”
Guy Cipriano can be reached at 231-4643. Follow him on Twitter @cdtguy