PENN STATE NITTANY LIONS
Record: 4-2, 1-1 Big Ten. Ineligible in Leaders Division.
Head Coach: Bill O’Brien, 2nd year at Penn State (12-6).
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 to a 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 former head coach Joe 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.
Last month, the NCAA said that it will reduce some of the sanctions against Penn State’s football program by gradually restoring scholarships starting next season, though the Nittany Lions are still in year two of a four-year postseason ban.
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 in his first season, O’Brien guided the Nittany Lions to an 8-4 overall mark and finished second in the Leaders Division at 6-2, though ineligible for the Big Ten Championship game.
So far in 2013, Penn State is 4-2 overall and 1-1 in the Big Ten with wins over Syracuse (23-17), Eastern Michigan (45-7), Kent State (45-0), and Michigan in four overtimes (43-40). The losses were to Central Florida (34-31) and Indiana (44-24).
One player O’Brien had to replace this season was 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.
To replace McGloin, O’Brien has true freshman Christian Hackenberg, a five-star recruit and the No. 2-ranked pro-style QB in the nation coming out of high school. Hackenberg has started all six games and has thrown 1,672 yards on 132-226 (58.4%) passing with 11 touchdowns and six interceptions. He leads the Big Ten in completions (132) and passing yards (278.7 ypg) and is fourth in total offense.
Hackenberg has several options 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 Felder, and sophomore tight ends Jesse James and Kyle Carter.
Zwinak leads the team in rushing with 393 yards on 90 carries (4.3 avg.) and eight touchdowns. Belton is second with 369 yards on 70 attempts (5.3 avg.) and three TDs.
Robinson is Penn State’s top pass catcher with 43 receptions for 705 yards and five scores, while Felder is second with 22 catches for 232 yards and two TDs. Robinson leads the Big Ten and is 10th in the NCAA receptions (7.2 rpg), and is second in receiving yards per game (117.5), which is 17th nationally.
This is where Penn State is having problems and that’s on defensive side of the ball. In Big Ten play, the Nittany Lions are giving up 42 points per game.
Gone are 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 stopper is senior inside linebacker Glenn Carson with 49 total tackles, 1.0 sack and 2.0 tackles for loss. Junior defensive tackle DaQuan Jones is second with 39 tackles and a team-leading 8.5 tackles for loss. Senior defensive end C.J. Olaniyan tops the roster with 3.5 sacks.
Last season, Penn State was seventh in the Big Ten averaging 29.1 points, and were second in the conference in passing offense at 273.8 yards per game. This season, the Nittany Lions are currently seventh in both categories averaging 33.3 points and 440.8 yards per game. Penn State is far better throwing the football, as the Nittany Lions are third in the Big Ten in passing (283.7 ypg), but just 11th in rushing (117.5 ypg).
From the other side of the line of scrimmage, Penn State was second in the conference in scoring defense (19.1 ppg) and fourth in total defense (353.4 ypg) in 2012. Through six games in 2013, the Nittany Lions seventh in scoring defense (23.7 ppg) and fifth in total defense (335.8 ypg).
Before the season began, I predicted that Penn State would go 3-1 during the non-league portion, though winning just twice in Big Ten play to finish 5-7. Looks like I was just off that mark. With games against Illinois and Purdue remaining, the Nittany Lions might end the year at .500.
Don’t forget to check out my Football Friday Preview detailing Saturday’s Ohio State-Penn State game.