PENN STATE returned to the Top 25 this week for the first time since January 2003, and if you want to know why, just think of the children. The 5--0 Nittany Lions use three true freshman receivers, who have already reconditioned fans in Happy Valley to cheer--instead of cringe--when the offense takes the field.
The flashiest of the trio is Derrick Williams. Ranked by many experts as the country's top offensive recruit, he has been a versatile weapon in coach Joe Paterno's attack, returning kicks and lining up in the backfield as well as split wide. The 6-foot, 195-pound Williams ran for two touchdowns in last Saturday's 44--14 victory over Minnesota, one on a reverse and the other on an option pitch. The week before, in a 34--29 victory over Northwestern, he caught the game-winning 36-yard pass with 51 seconds left. He has also had a 56-yard kickoff return.
Justin King is another freshman speedster who pops up everywhere on the field. He has grabbed two touchdown passes, unspooled a 61-yard run and played part time at cornerback. Also contributing is Jordan Norwood, who against Northwestern became senior quarterback Michael Robinson's go-to receiver, with five catches for 83 yards. Those three--along with Deon Butler, who as a redshirt freshman is the graybeard of the group--are the main reason that Penn State's offense is 20th in Division I-A after finishing 104th last year.
Even Robinson, who has induced his share of cringes the past couple of years as Zach Mills's understudy, has stepped up his play to keep pace with the youngsters. He led a fourth-quarter comeback against Northwestern that included a fourth-and-15 conversion, and against Minnesota he threw for 175 yards and ran for 112 more. The Nittany Lions' already-stout defense--which ranked 10th in the nation last year--has done its part too. The D ranks 27th this fall (308.6 yards per game), and on Saturday it limited Golden Gophers running back Laurence Maroney, touted as a Heisman candidate, to 48 yards on 16 carries.
Penn State went 3--13 in the Big Ten over the last two seasons, but the victory over No. 18 Minnesota--its first against a ranked opponent since 2002--showed that Paterno's team will no longer serve as conference doormat. Still, the 16th-ranked Nittany Lions, who opened the season with home games against South Florida, Cincinnati and Central Michigan, are about to find the road they're traveling considerably steeper. They play No. 6 Ohio State at home this week, then travel to Michigan. Also looming are Purdue, Wisconsin and Michigan State. Paterno sounded a note of caution after Saturday's win. "The young kids worry me," he said, "because I have never worked freshmen as hard as I have worked these kids."
But in a season when freshmen throughout the country are making their mark (page 76), maybe kids aren't what they used to be. The four Penn State receivers roomed together this summer and expected they would improve the offense right away. "We would talk about what it was going to be like this year, being out on the field and making plays together," says Norwood. They chipped in for a PlayStation college football game and spent nights inserting themselves in the starting lineup and watching themselves take on the rest of the Big Ten. So far, at least, they've made the transition to actual games look like child's play. --Bill Syken