PENN STATE NITTANY LIONS
2012 Record: 8-4, 6-2 Big Ten. 2nd in Leaders Division.
Head Coach: Bill O’Brien, 2nd year at Penn State (8-4).
Offensive Starters Returning: 8
Defensive Starters Returning: 6
On November 5, 2011, former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was arrested on 40 counts of child sexual abuse occurring between 1994 and 2009. Three days later, legendary head coach Joe Paterno was fired.
After Paterno was let go and the students rioted in the streets, defensive coordinator Tom Bradley took over for the final four games of the 2011 season, going 1-3 that includes a 30-14 loss to Houston in the TicketCity Bowl.
Following the bowl game, Bradley wasn’t retained as university officials went with an outsider with no ties to Penn State. On January 7, 2012, Bill O’Brien left his job as offensive coordinator for the National Football League’s New England Patriots to become the 15th head coach in school history at Penn State, a program in shambles due the child sex abuse scandal.
But what O’Brien wasn’t expecting were the severe sanctions handed down by the NCAA because of the scandal and the eventual cover-up by university officials including former president Graham Spaniel, athletic director Tim Curley, senior VP Gary Schultz, and Paterno.
The sanctions were handed down on July 23, 2012, as the NCAA announced that all wins from 1998-2011 to be vacated, fined the school $60 million and had 40 scholarships removed for a period of four years (10 initial and up to 20 over the next three years). Penn State was also placed on probation for a five-year period and will be ineligible to compete in any type of postseason play for the next four years.
Another part of the sanctions was that all Penn State players immediately became eligible to transfer and play for another university. In all, 15 players left the program and transferred to other schools before the 2012 season began.
Though shorthanded in terms of scholarship players, a theme that will continue for the next few years, O’Brien guided the Nittany Lions to an 8-4 overall mark and finished second in the Leaders Division at 6-2.
Of course, things got off to a rocky start in Happy Valley as the Nittany Lions went 0-2 to begin the campaign with a 24-14 loss to Ohio at home and a 17-16 setback at Virginia. From there, Penn State rattled off five-straight wins until losing to Ohio State 35-23 at Beaver Stadium on Oct. 27, but rebounded to earn victories in three out of the final four contests.
Though Penn State returned just six starters last season and will have a total of 14 this season, I’m not sure there’s much talent or depth, especially on defense.
One player O’Brien has to replace is at the quarterback position as Matt McGloin exhausted his eligibility. He completed 60.5 percent of his passes (270-446) for 3,271 yards with 24 touchdowns and five interceptions last season. McGloin moved into second-place on Penn State’s all-time career passing leaders list with 6,390 yards.
The two players vying for the job have never taken a snap in an FBS game. It appears that the starter for the season-opener against Syracuse will be sophomore Tyler Ferguson, a junior college transfer who threw for 2,614 yards and 22 TD’s at College of the Sequoias in Visalia, Calif.
O’Brien’s other option is true freshman Christian Hackenberg, a five-star recruit and the No. 2-ranked pro-style QB.
Regardless of who plays quarterback, they’ll have plenty of weapons to either hand the ball off to or throw at with junior running backs Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton, junior wide receiver Allen Robinson, senior wide receiver Brandon Moseby-Felder, and sophomore tight end Kyle Carter.
Zwinak led the team in rushing with an even 1,000 yards on 203 attempts and six touchdowns. He’s more of a between-the-tackles power runner that doesn’t have much breakaway speed. Zwinak only had three runs of 19 or more yards last season.
Robinson was last year’s top pass catcher after hauling in 77 passes for 1,013 yards and 11 touchdowns, while Carter was second with 36 receptions for 453 yards and two TDs.
Three returning starters on the offensive line return led by senior LG John Urschel.
This is where Penn State has major problems and that’s on defense with just six starters returning. Gone of four of the top five defensive players from last season – Gerald Hodges, Michael Mauti, Jordan Hill, and Stephon Morris – who accounted for 348 total tackles, 9.5 sacks, 16.5 tackles for loss, 14 pass breakups and six interceptions.
Penn State’s top returning tackler is senior inside linebacker Glenn Carson, who had 85 stops, one sack and two tackles for loss. Junior linebacker Mike Hull had 58 total tackles in 2012.
Three starers return in the secondary, the best and most experienced unit, but there are some serious question marks on the defensive line.
Conclusion and Prediction:
Depending on how the development of the two quarterbacks go, Penn State should be fairly decent offensively. Last season, the Nittany Lions were seventh in the Big Ten averaging 29.1 points, and were second in the conference in passing offense at 273.8 yards per game. I don’t expect them to get close to those marks in 2013, but PSU will have a more balanced offense.
From the other side of the line of scrimmage, it will be the defense that will let Nittany Nation down. I just don’t see them having the horses, both in talent in depth, the be in the top half of most defensive statistical categories in the Big Ten. Last season, Penn State was second in the conference in scoring defense (19.1 ppg) and fourth in total defense (353.4 ypg).
Looking over Penn State’s schedule and I have them going 3-1 during the non-league portion, but winning just twice in Big Ten play to go 5-7.