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COLLINS: Penn State playing its best football heading into November


In the end, Penn State players couldn't stop talking about a gadget play that saw their star quarterback catch a touchdown pass, their freshman running back leaped over a pair of defenders to score a touchdown — again — and menacing-as-it-is defensive tackle Anthony Zettel conducted his postgame interviews while wearing a Jason mask from the horrifying Friday the 13th movies.

The scene proved to be a bit surreal, actually.

For the first time all season, there was nothing to gripe about. Even the wins earlier in the season led to questions. How could Penn State let Army hang so close, for so long? Sure, they beat San Diego State, but weren't they far too sloppy? They beat Buffalo, but didn't they win in spite of more uneven play from their quarterback Christian Hackenberg and the offensive line? They beat Rutgers and Indiana, but that's hardly the cream of the Big Ten, right?

Well, there was none of that Saturday. Penn State blasted Illinois. And by no measure has Illinois been a bad team this season. Bill Cubit is generally seen as a good, solid head coach who has his team prepared. The Illini haven't won every game this season, but they beat Nebraska before Nebraska collapsed in on itself. They were competitive against Iowa, at Kinnick Stadium, and they were in the game against Wisconsin.

They never stood a chance against Penn State though. The final score was 39-0. It felt worse.

The Illini gained just 167 yards on offense.

Their defense, ranked No. 33 in the nation heading into the game, couldn't stop running back Saquon Barkley and had no answers for Hackenberg, who seems to have found his brilliance again.

When little-used backup quarterback Trace McSorley is jogging onto the field with more than nine minutes to go in the game, you know there was a beating. And you know it was thorough.

"It was a good win," head coach James Franklin said. "Obviously, it was a good win. We're getting better."

Lions have come a long way: The laughs. The Jason mask. The upbeat attitudes. None of this seemed possible two months ago. It was hard even in the jubilant interview sessions after the game not to think about how gloomy the outlook for this season appeared to be back at Lincoln Financial Field on Sept. 5, when Temple spanked Penn State for the first time in a few generations, and conventional wisdom indicated Franklin and his staff might have a real mess on their hands in 2015.

But after that game, he promised his team would do two things: 1.) Stay positive, and 2.) Get better.

It sounded like empty talk at the time.

Penn State keeps winning the games everyone figures it should win, and it does so more impressively by the week. But also remember this: The Nittany Lions lost last season to Maryland and Illinois in games where the offense scored a combined 33 points. Add in Indiana and Rutgers, and they scored 59 points in those four games in 2014. This season, the Nittany Lions beat all four of those teams and scored 127.

Getting healthy: Finally healthy, Penn State is getting a consistent ground attack from Barkley. He gained 84 yards Saturday and had 58 more on the receiving end — a strong effort all around.

The offensive line allowed three sacks, but it suddenly doesn't look like a sieve despite injuries that could have crippled the offense. The talented receivers who didn't make a consistent impact early in the season have made one the last few weeks. Eugene Lewis caught another touchdown pass Saturday. So did Chris Godwin. Those two and DaeSean Hamilton were breaking off explosive plays in the passing game, regularly.

Hackenberg on roll: Debate his NFL Draft stock all you want, but Hackenberg hasn't thrown an interception since the Buffalo game. He has thrown 12 touchdown passes since.

"It was good for everything to kind of come to fruition today," Hackenberg said afterward. "We just kind of got lost in the flow of the game."

That's a far cry from being lost, period.

Penn State has lost two games to the two really good teams it has faced, and they weren't close in either. But Temple played in the biggest game of the week Saturday night, and quite frankly, nobody has been all that competitive against Ohio State since last October. Every player mentioned above could come back to school next season and play, if they choose to do so. This is a young team, remember. And young, gifted teams are always better in October than they are in September.

"I think this does a really huge thing for our confidence, and that's really the most important thing," sophomore linebacker Jason Cabinda said. "Guys are playing confident. They're playing fast. There are no hesitations."

Big November: That's the best way to describe what Penn State is doing right now on both sides of the football.

For sure, this is a season that ultimately will be judged by what they accomplish in November. But the Nittany Lions have been building toward their best month of the Franklin era. Considering how it started, the 2015 season has a chance to end with a young, talented and — suddenly — pretty good Penn State ahead of schedule.