CINCINNATI -- There are moral victories in college football, and then there are moral lessons.
The Cincinnati Bearcats got one of the former and Penn State one of the latter Saturday night, when the Nittany Lions staggered away from Nippert Stadium with a 24-20, hold-your-breath victory.
This was only the season opener, and already Penn State was down to its third quarterback, freshman Wally Richardson.
The Nittany Lions offense quickly became one-dimensional with injuries to the team's top two quarterbacks, Kerry Collins, who broke a finger last month playing volleyball, and John Sacca, who injured his right collarbone taking a second-quarter hit on a scramble.
Richardson, from Sumter, S.C., performed admirably under the circumstances, but Penn State wore down Cincinnati with its running game and defense. Forget about pretty.
"It was definitely a learning experience," said tailback Richie Anderson of Sandy Spring, Md., who rushed for 85 yards and one touchdown. "Did we take them lightly? I think so."
Twelve months after Penn State routed Cincinnati, 81-0, it was not hard to understand.
"We'll learn from this," coach Joe Paterno said, "and we'll be a better football team.
"In a game like this, everybody's disappointed [that Penn State didn't win big]. I'm not disappointed. Cincinnati has a nice football team."
Although Sacca's right arm was in a sling after the game, he said the injury was "not too serious."
Sacca, the younger brother of departed 1991 starter Tony Sacca, said he expects to be ready for Saturday's home opener against Temple.
If he can't play, the job goes to Richardson, who completed five of 10 passes for 35 yards and drew support from his teammates.
"I think he did a good job getting thrown in there like that," Sacca said of Richardson.
"I was impressed with the way he handled himself," Anderson said.
Collins beat out Sacca in the preseason, but his availability is uncertain. He hasn't started to throw since the injury. Another quarterback, senior Matt Nardolillo, has a sore shoulder.
"Maybe we can trade for a quarterback," Paterno said.
Perhaps the most disconcerting aspect of the quarterback quandary is whether Penn State will be able to use split end O. J. McDuffie. He is a Heisman Trophy candidate and one of the nation's top breakaway threats.
But if the Lions can't pass the ball, how do they get it in McDuffie's hands?
"We've got to figure that out," McDuffie said. "The way it looks now, the best bet is punt returns."
Thanks to Penn State's defense, McDuffie got his share of punt returns Saturday. He averaged 15 yards on six returns, but also lost one on a fumble.
His biggest contribution was a 46-yard scamper on a reverse that set up a second-quarter touchdown. The Lions called the reverse twice more in the game, but got only a 2-yard gain and a 15-yard holding penalty out of it.
McDuffie, who averaged 124 all-purpose yards last season, had 157 against Cincinnati.
Given the state of the passing game, he was asked if frustration has begun to set in yet.
"I can't be frustrated," McDuffie said. "I know what's going on. I've got to accept my role with the team."
Except that after Saturday night, his role looked a little hazy.