By John Zenor
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. - So Alabama breezed through its first two games by a collective score of 72-6, rebuilt defense and all.
Wonder how good the top-ranked Crimson Tide will be when fully loaded?
That answer should start to take shape now that Saturday night's 24-3 brush-aside of No. 22 Penn State is over and done with.
The Tide (2-0) is set to get back star defensive end Marcell Dareus from suspension this weekend against Duke, and Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram should be back taking handoffs.
Their absence didn't hold Bama back much. Not even in a marquee nonconference matchup with the Nittany Lions (1-1), thanks partly to three forced turnovers in Tide territory when the game was still up for grabs.
"I think it's a big win, it will help catapult us into the rest of the season," Tide quarterback Greg McElroy said. "We divide the season up into segments and this is the end of the first segment. Now it's really time to start playing some football."
Perhaps the first segment is: Life without Ingram and Dareus. It was more painless than it could have been.
Now, Alabama will take its first road trip with two of its biggest stars back in the fold. Coach Nick Saban said after the game he expects Ingram (left knee) to return to practice today and at least get spot duty against the Blue Devils.
It would be a nice way to ease back into action if nothing else ahead of games with No. 12 Arkansas and No. 10 Florida.
Dareus served a two-game NCAA suspension for accepting improper benefits in two Miami trips.
Without him, the Tide allowed two field goals and has the early national lead in scoring defense despite replacing nine starters.
"It will be helpful to get Marcell Dareus back on defense, but I think we just need more players to contribute, especially on defense where there are more young guys who just need to take advantage of the opportunity," Saban said.
Then again, freshman linebacker C.J. Mosely led the Tide in tackles the first week, and redshirt freshman Ed Stinson had a team-high nine against the Nittany Lions.
Minus Ingram, Trent Richardson has run for 210 yards and three touchdowns and averaged 6.6 yards per carry. McElroy is the nation's fifth-rated passer, and Julio Jones has 10 catches. Jones didn't reach double digits until the sixth game last season while sitting out one with an injury.
Penn State didn't have an answer for any of the three in the first half when Alabama outgained the Nittany Lions 288-131 and led 17-0. The second half was much more even.
"I thought we played better overall in the second half," coach Joe Paterno said. "I just think we didn't play with the kind of intensity early enough in the football game that you have to have against a team as good as Alabama."
The Nittany Lions couldn't muster enough of a running game to take pressure off freshman quarterback Rob Bolden, who was intercepted twice to snuff out strong drives. Alabama didn't manage to sack him but made him rush some throws in key situations with blitzes. He was 13-of-29 for 144 yards, and the interceptions were made at the Tide's 3 and 13.
"I thought Rob did a good job," Penn State receiver Brett Brackett said. "He got stuck in some tough situations and unfortunately it didn't go our way. But it's a learning experience. He has to learn from it. We have 10 more games and we can't separate as a team. We have to come together as a team and come back and fight."
Penn State should have some time to get things together. The Nittany Lions figure to be heavy favorites the next two weeks against Kent State and Temple.
The loss to Alabama was still a frustrating experience.
"We're definitely beating up on ourselves a little bit because we had some opportunities we didn't capitalize on," Brackett said. "Whether it was not executing, dropping the ball here, not blocking, or fumbling, there were just a couple of things we beat ourselves with. We're definitely disappointed in that aspect."