Penn State Nittany Lions
Head Coach: Bill O’Brien
2012 Record: 8-4 overall, 6-2 Big Ten Leaders Division
2012 Bowl Result: Not Eligible
2013 Returning Starters: 8 offense, 6 defense
Odds to Win 2014 BCS Championship: Not Eligible
Odds to Win Big Ten Title: Not Eligible
Odds to Win Big Ten Leaders: No Odds
Regular Season Wins: under 8 -120 / over 8 -110
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Many were surprised that Penn State won 8 games last year in the wake of the horrible Jerry Sandusky molestation scandal. The after effects of that tragedy will be felt in the football program for years to come, mainly due to harsh NCAA sanctions that severely limited scholarships and banned the program from postseason play for four years. This is year two of those penalties. Head Coach Bill O’Brien has a difficult recruiting task ahead of him as he is trying to get kids to come play for Penn State with no promise of being able to play for conference titles or bowl berths. The NCAA also gave current Penn State players a one year grace period to transfer to any other school without having to sit out a year. Many players took advantage of that chance, but that period expires very soon. That should at least bring some stability to the program.
Let’s take a look at the offense, defense, special teams, and the schedule.
True freshman Christian Hackenberg is a 5 star recruit and could have gone anywhere. He committed to Penn State before the sanctions came down and to his credit never broke his commitment to the Nittany Lions. Hackenberg’s arm and decision making are considered to be pro level. He is expected to be the starter, taking over for Matt McGloin. Sophomore JUCO transfer Tyler Ferguson could also be in the mix, as he is more mobile and has a year of experience. Stephen Bench was also supposed to be in the mix for the starter, but he transferred to South Florida.
Junior running back Zach Zwinak never really got a chance to play early in the season. However, he ran for 94 yards on 18 carries in the fourth game against Temple and then ran for over 100 yards in six of the Nittany Lions’ last eight games. He had a huge day in Penn State’s double overtime upset over Wisconsin in the season finale. He ended up with exactly 1,000 rushing yards with 6 touchdowns, along with 20 catches for 177 yards and a touchdown. Redshirt freshman Akeel Lynch, junior Bill Belton and Richy Anderson will also get some carries. Senior blocking fullback Pat Zerbe won’t get any carries but he also contributes on special teams. The only problem with the running backs may be a lack of big play capability but they should be productive.
Junior receiver Allen Robinson had 77 catches for 1,013 yards and 11 scores last year for the Lions. He had 10 catches, 197 yards and 3 touchdowns in the Indiana game. Brandon Moseby-Felder will start at the other wide receiver. He had 31 catches last year. Alex Kenney, a former corner has enough speed to make some big plays. He had 17 catches last year.
While the wide receivers will be good if not great, the tight ends are easily the best unit in the Big Ten and possibly even the nation. Senior Matt Lehman was one of a group of starters last year and had 24 catches, 296 yards and 3 touchdowns. Sophomore Jesse James had 15 catches, 274 yards and 5 scores, averaging 18.4 yards per catch. Sophomore Kyle Carter had 36 catches , 453 yards and 2 touchdowns before a wrist injury sidelined him. He is still trying to come back from that injury and might not be ready for the start of the season. True freshman Adam Breneman might be the most talented of the four. All four could be NFL bound after their college careers. Coach O’Brien had great success with tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez when he was the offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots.
The offensive line wasn’t great last year but should improve as most of the starters and back-ups return. Sophomore Donovan Smith will start at left tackle. Left guard Miles Dieffenbach and right guard John Urschel should improve as well.
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A lot of key starters return for new defensive coordinator John Butler but depth will be an issue for the unit which will use a 4-3 formation again. The pass rush led the Big Ten last year and should be fantastic once again. The problem could be the secondary as it wasn’t very good last year and didn’t force a lot of turnovers.
Sophomore defensive end Deion Barnes had a fantastic freshman year with 25 tackles (10 for loss), 6 sacks and 3 forced fumbles. Junior C.J. Olaniyan and sophomore Anthony Zettel will compete for the other end spot. Both had 15 tackles last year. Senior tackle DaQuan Jones takes over for Jordan Hill. Jones had 22 tackles last year. Derek Dowrey will platoon with Jones. Redshirt freshman will start at the other tackle. He has potential, but could struggle to stop the run. Kyle Bublitz and Garrett Sickels will also see time in the rotation on the line.
Outside linebacker Glenn Carson moves to the middle and is best player of the linebackers. He had 85 tackles last season. Junior Mike Hull had 58 tackles, with 4 sacks. He had a 74 yard fumble return for a touchdown against Navy. Redshirt freshman Nyeeem Wartman will start at the other outside linebacker. Gary Wooten, and Ben Kline, will also see time in the rotation. Zayd Issah would have also been in the rotation before an arrest for assault in the middle of July.
Cornerback Adrian Amos could be moved over to safety. He had 44 tackles, 2 picks, and 3 pass break-ups last year. If Amos moves to safety, Malik Golden and Jordan Smith will compete for the corner spot. Sophomores Da’Quan Davis and Jordan Lucas will compete for the other corner. Senior safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong had 41 tackles and four pass break-ups. Senior free safety Malcolm Willis had 45 tackles last year, but struggled in pass defense. If he doesn’t improve, he could lose hsi starting spot to Amos. Trevor Williams, a converted receiver could also see time at safety.
Junior kicker Sam Ficken missed 4 of 5 field goals and an extra point against Virginia, a game Penn State lost 17-16. He rebounded to make 14 of 21 kicks for the season and converted 39 of 41 extra points. He made his last 10 field goals of the year. Walk-on Chris Gulla could challenge for the kicker spot if Ficken struggles like he did against Virginia.
Senior punter Alex Butterworth did put 19 kicks inside the 20, but he averaged only 37.4 yards per punt. He needs to improve his leg strength by hitting the gym.
Safety Jesse Della Valle averaged 7.6 yards per punt return, and 25.2 on kickoff returns. Running back Belton averaged 15.2 yards per kick return.
Penn State opens against Syracuse at Metlife Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ. Then comes 3 home games against Eastern Michigan, Central Florida, and Kent State. Central Florida and Kent State both went to bowl games, and Kent was in position to go to a BCS game had they beaten Northern Illinois in the MAC Championship. The Big Ten slate includes road games at Indiana, Ohio State, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, and home games against Michigan, Illinois, Purdue, and Nebraska.
The non-conference schedule is tougher than it looks, with Eastern Michigan being the only cupcake. Penn State should be at least 3-1 after those games, but could easily be 2-2 or worse if they aren’t careful. The conference slate is tough including road games at Ohio State and the season finale at Wisconsin. The Nittany Lions have a ton of talent on offense even if the quarterbacks are untested. Still I think another 8 win season will be tough to achieve. I see Penn State finishing 7-5 or 6-6. Penn State could be a dangerous spoiler late in the season as they have nothing to play for except pride.
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