Big Ten Team Preview: Penn State Nittany Lions
WNUR’s Michael Stern (@michaeljstern23) breaks down James Franklin’s Nittany Lions, and how they will fare after the departure of Bill O’Brien. Stern’s prediction aligns with the WNUR staff, who expect a fourth place finish in the Big Ten West for the Nittany Lions.
WNUR’s Prediction: 8-4 overall, 5-3 in conference.
Year three of Penn State’s post-Sandusky sanctions brings the winds of change to Happy Valley. Bill O’’Brien, who navigated through the first two years of the Lions’ four-year postseason ban, left State College to become the head coach of the Houston Texans. The Nittany Lions turned to former Vanderbilt head man James Franklin as O’Brien’s successor. Franklin, a former quarterback at East Stroudsburg University, two and a half hours east of Happy Valley, was an impressive 24-15 in three seasons in Nashville, leading the Commodores to three bowl appearances and their first season-ending top 25 ranking since 1948. There will be no bowl for Franklin’s first Penn State team, however, as the Lions still have two years remaining on their post-season ban. That does not mean the cupboard is bare, however, and expectations are still high in State College after the team finished above .500 in both of its seasons under O’Brien.
Offense: Christian Hackenberg returns under center for Penn State. The burly sophomore from Virginia had a rocky freshman campaign, throwing for 2,955 yards and 20 touchdowns with 10 interceptions and a 58.9 completion percentage (for Wildcat fans, that’s right on par with Trevor Siemian’s 59.8 completion rate; in other words, not good.) Hackenberg is a year older, but his offensive line is much, much younger. 335-pound junior Donovan Smith appears to have left tackle under wraps, and fellow junior Angelo Mangrio returns at center, but both of Penn State’s starting guards (Brian Gaia and Derek Dowrey) were defensive tackles last season, and new right tackle Andrew Nelson red-shirted last season. Miles Dieffenbach was slated to start at one guard spot, but he tore his ACL in spring practice.
The most exciting news for the Penn State offense is the return of their two-headed running back monster, Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton. Last season, the pair combined for 1,792 yards and 17 touchdowns, with Zwinak serving as the power back and Belton as more of the speed rusher. Wide receiver is a major question mark, however, as Allen Robinson departs along with 46 percent of the Lions’ 2013 receiving yards. The unenviable task of replacing the un-guardable Robinson should be split between sophomore Geno Lewis (233 receiving yards last season), junior Matt Zanellato (53 yards), and true freshman DeAndre Thompkins. Tight end Jesse James is expected to play a major role in the passing game as well. James was second on the team last season with 333 receiving yards, and will almost certainly be Hackenberg’s main red zone target. Lewis will return kickoffs, Belton is slated to run back punts, and kicker Sam Ficken returns for his senior season hoping to become well-known for something other than his 1-for-5 performance in 2012 against Virginia.
Defense: Gone is leading tackler and middle linebacker Glenn Carson, but senior Mike Hull (78 tackles, 4.5 for loss) will slide in to replace Carson. BTN.com all-freshman selection Brandon Bell gets the first shot at replacing Hull on the outside, and sophomore Nyeem Wartman returns at the other outside linebacker spot in Penn State’s 4-3 defense. The defensive line should be Penn State’s strength, as CJ Olaniyan (5 sacks, 11 tackles for loss) returns for his senior season and Deion Barnes (2 sacks) and Anthony Zettel (4 sacks) look to build off strong sophomore campaigns. Sophomore Austin Johnson is the young man of the group, but he saw action in all 12 games last season as well.
Everyone returns from Penn State’s final starting secondary of 2013. Junior Jordan Lucas (65 tackles, 3 interceptions) and junior converted wide receiver Trevor Williams (24 tackles, 2 interceptions) will start at corner, while seniors Ryan Keiser (3 interceptions) and Adrian Amos (50 tackles) return at safety. Keep an eye on junior Malik Golden, who also returns to the secondary and will play an important role in defending five-wide sets. Golden could also play safety and free up Amos to see some time at nickel-back. Freshman Chris Gulla gets the first shot to replace punter Alex Butterworth, who averaged 37.4 yards a punt last season.
Schedule: Penn State opens the season with an 8:30 AM kick-off against Central Florida in Dublin, Ireland. It’s a shame this kickoff is so early, since the Blake Bortles-less defending Fiesta Bowl champs are the Lions’ toughest non-conference test. The rest of the non-conference slate consists of snoozers against Akron, UMass, and Temple. Penn State’s conference schedule is also pretty favorable. The Lions must travel to the Big House for a night game against Michigan, but their other three conference road games are Rutgers, Indiana, and Illinois. Ohio State and Michigan State both travel to Happy Valley this year, as does conference newcomer and former James Franklin employer Maryland. Northwestern also pays a visit to Beaver Stadium on September 27 for the Wildcats’ first conference game of the season.
Prediction: Penn State finished 7-5 last season, beating Michigan in a multi-overtime epic and finishing the season with an upset victory at Wisconsin. The offensive line is younger and the receiving depth is non-existent, but both running backs, most of the defense, and Christian Hackenberg return and the schedule is easier. I expect the Lions to topple Central Florida in the Kinghts’ first game after the Blake Bortles era, and I think Penn State can squeak out one win in their three most challenging games of the season (Michigan, Ohio State off a bye, or Michigan State). Sure, they’ll suffer an unexpected setback at some point (Northwestern, perhaps?), but the Lions will improve on last season and finish 9-3, 5-3 in conference play.