Preview No. 7: Penn State Nittany Lions

This is the seventh in a series of articles previewing Ohio State’s 12 opponents for the 2014 season.

Ohio State travels to State College to take Penn State on Oct. 25. Kickoff at the erector set known as Beaver Stadium is scheduled for 8:00 p.m ET, and it will be televised on one of the Disney-owned outlets (ABC/ESPN/ESPN2).

Ohio State's Noah Spence sacks Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenburg on Oct. 26, 2013 at Ohio Stadium in Columbus. The Buckeyes won 63-14. (Marvin Fong/The Plain Dealer)

Ohio State’s Noah Spence sacks Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenburg on Oct. 26, 2013 at Ohio Stadium in Columbus. The Buckeyes won 63-14. (Marvin Fong/The Plain Dealer)

Last Season:

Penn State was 7-5 overall and finished third in the Leaders Division of the Big Ten Conference at 4-4. The seven wins came against Syracuse (23-17), Eastern Michigan (45-7), Kent State (34-0), Michigan (43-40, 4 OT), Illinois (24-17, OT), Purdue (45-21), and Wisconsin (31-24). The five losses were to UCF (34-31), Indiana (44-24), Ohio State (63-14), Minnesota (24-10), and Nebraska (23-20, OT). Due to NCAA sanctions, Penn State was ineligible for postseason play.

History & Coaches:

If you don’t know Penn State’s history by now, chances are you might have been living in a van down by the river without internet access for the last several years. But let’s recap.

Penn State had this Italian guy from Brown University who was the Nittany Lions head coach for 46 years. He talked funny, he walked funny, wore glasses with Coke bottle lenses and pants that were way too short with white socks and black shoes. He even crapped his flood pants during the 2006 Penn State-Ohio State game in Columbus and had to run to the locker room.

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, including allegations of incidents on the Penn State campus. Then everything snowballed from there. Four days later, Penn State’s Board of Trustees fired Paterno.

For the 2012 season, Penn State hired New England Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien as the school’s 15th head football coach replacing Paterno, and he was introduced at a press conference on January 7, 2012.

O’Brien stuck around for two seasons and led the Nittany Lions to a 15-9 overall mark, but was hampered by severe NCAA sanctions. He then left to become head coach of the NFL’s Houston Texans.

To replace O’Brien, Penn State hired Vanderbilt’s James Franklin, who amassed an impressive 24-15 mark in three seasons in Nashville.

Offense:

Penn State returns seven starters on offense, if you want to count two tight ends, along with two offensive linemen, a running back, a wide receiver and a quarterback.

Sophomore Christian Hackenburg, the 2013 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, completed 58.9 percent (231-392) of his throws for 2,955 yards with 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

Penn State’s top two rushers return with seniors Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton. Zwinak has compiled 1,996 career yards to led the team in rushing for a second-straight season with 989 yards on 210 carries and 12 touchdowns in 2013. Belton rushed for 803 yards in 157 attempts and five TDs last year while also adding 15 receptions for 158 yards and two more scores.

Where the Nittany Lions are very thin is at the wide receiver position. Gone are two of the top three wideouts from last season including Allen Robinson, who hauled in 97 balls for 1,432 yards and six touchdowns. Sophomore Eugene Lewis is the most experienced receiver after posting 18 receptions for 234 yards and three scores in 2013.

One thing is for sure, Penn State has a trio of capable tight ends with junior Jesse James leading the way as the team’s top returning receiver with 25 catches for 333 yards and three touchdowns last year.

Two starters return on the offensive line with junior tackle Donovan Smith anchoring the left side. A USA Today first-team preseason All-Big Ten choice, Smith has started 20 games in his first two seasons. The other returning starter is fifth-year senior right guard Miles Dieffenbach.

Defense:

Seven starters return on the defensive side of the ball led by senior middle linebacker Mike Hull, who is the top returning tackler after recording 78 stops with 44 solos in 2013. Also returning is sophomore outside linebacker Nyeem Wartman, who started eight games last season and had 32 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, and one sack.

On the defensive line, senior end C.J. Olaniyan led the team in sacks (5.0), was second in TFLs (11.0), and had 50 tackles in 2013. On the other side, junior end Deion Barnes played in all 12 games last season and had 28 tackles, four tackles for loss, and two sacks.

In the secondary, senior strong safety Adrian Amos, senior free safety Ryan Keiser, and junior cornerback Jordan Lucas all return. Lucas was third on the team last season with 65 total tackles, and share the team lead with Keiser, who both had three interceptions.