PHILADELPHIA -- There is still talk of a national championship, but the tone is hushed and the words are hollow. There are still hopes that Penn State can repeat its devastating performance from a season-opening victory over Georgia Tech, but those seem faint at best.
Despite three straight victories, a 5-1 record and a No. 9 national ranking, the Nittany Lions are not resembling the confident bunch they were a month ago. And going into Saturday's make-or-break game against second-ranked Miami at the Orange Bowl, Penn State knows it had better pick up its performance from the past two weeks.
"If we don't play better than this, we'll get killed," linebacker Mark D'Onofrio said here early yesterday morning, after the Nittany Lions needed two late touchdowns to put away Temple, 24-7, Saturday night at Veterans Stadium.
It took a 22-yard touchdown pass from Tony Sacca to Terry Smith with 2 minutes, 1 second remaining to give Penn State room to breathe. It took a 41-yard interception return for a touchdown by Darren Perry, his second in as many weeks, to give the Nittany Lions reason to celebrate.
But theirs was no joy ride back to Happy Valley. The post-game discussion focused on Penn State's three fumbles, on its missed assignments and, mostly, on the 10 penalties for 95 yards. All of those mistakes helped keep Temple (1-4) in the game, and seriously thinking about ending a 16-game losing streak to its cross-state rival.
"We're not nearly as good as we'd hoped we would be at this stage, and it's because we're careless," said head coach Joe Paterno, whose poor-mouthing finally seems justified. "We can't seem to play with any consistency. Right now, we're not playing with a lot of poise."
The patchwork offensive line, considered marginal going into the season, has not come together. Temple's defensive line dominated, sacking Sacca three times and forcing him into several hurried throws. Even the normally reliable defense has had its shaky moments of late.
After leading Boston College, 28-7, two weeks ago, Penn State had to hold on for a 28-21 victory. Against the Owls, the Nittany Lions needed two fumbled snaps by quarterback Trent Thompson and a missed 35-yard field goal by Mike Knuth to stay in the lead.
"We're going to have to play a lot better [against Miami]," said tailback Shelly Hammonds, who fumbled once. "Physically, we haven't played that bad. But mentally, we've been having a lot of problems."
"We're winning ugly," said Sacca, who was 15-for-21 for 211 yards and two touchdowns. "But a win is a win, ugly or not."
The victories don't seem to satisfy Paterno, the game's winningest active coach. At the beginning of the season, especially after an impressive start against Georgia Tech in the Kickoff Classic, Paterno thought that this team had a chance to make a run for a national championship.
A victory over the Hurricanes will put the Nittany Lions back in the hunt; a defeat will end any realistic chance. But as he walked out of Veterans Stadium, Paterno's mind was still on Temple, still on a game that nearly got away. "I haven't thought about Miami," he said.