Our Big Ten preview series is back. Over the next few weeks, we’ll make our way through the Big Ten East and West from the bottom to the top. The countdown continues with the Penn State Nittany Lions.
Our Ian McCafferty looks at a team with a high ceiling, as the Nittany Lions look to improve on a mediocre 2014.
2014 Record: 7-6 overall, 2-6 B1G
2015 WNUR Projected Record: 8-4 overall, 4-4 B1G
Key Returners: Christian Hackenberg (QB), DaeSean Hamilton (WR), Anthony Zettel (DT), Akeel Lynch (RB)
Key Departures: Mike Hull (LB), Donovan Smith (LT), Bill Belton (RB), Deion Barnes (DE)
All things considered, this might as well be titled “Christian Hackenberg preview” because the former five-star recruit is pretty much Penn State’s offense. In 2014, Hackenberg had a startlingly mediocre season, throwing for just under 3000 yards and 12 touchdowns, but also throwing 15 interceptions and fumbling 9 times. It’s natural to blame the quarterback for a bad offense, but Hackenberg didn’t exactly get a lot of help. He was sacked 44 times, which was good for second worst in the country. To put it another way, Hackenberg was sacked more than any other quarterback in Division I football except for Wake Forest’s John Wolford (sacked 45 times).
Outside of the line, which loses last year’s starting left tackle and left guard, most of the offense returns. Top target DaeSean Hamilton (82 REC, 899 YDS, 2 TDs) looks to be primed for a big year, and leading rusher Akeel Lynch (678 YDS, 4 TDs) will try to create a more balanced offensive attack. The Nittany Lions have the skill players to put together a deadly offense this year, but Christian Hackenberg has to standing upright for that to happen. Since most of these players were in uniform last season, what Penn State’s offense will boil down to is whether or not the line can improve. The Nittany Lions will once again have a very pass heavy offense, dependent on being able to protect Hackenberg and give him time to throw.
Despite being saddled with a mediocre offense, Penn State’s defense was ridiculous last year. Second in the nation in total yards allowed, 10th in passing yards per game and first in rushing yards allowed with an absurd 84.6 yards per game. That’s a whole four yards better than Alabama’s defense. In comparison, Northwestern allowed 169.9 rushing yards per game last year. So if you were wondering how a team that averaged only 20.6 points per game won seven games last year, it’s because the defense only gave up 17.7. The scary thing is that they bring a lot of players back. The loss of leading tackler Mike Hull (107.5 tackles, 10.5 TFL) will certainly hurt, but Penn State has a platoon of linebackers returning, as well as three different four-star freshmen who will have a chance to step up.
The line suffers a bit of a loss in defensive end Deion Barnes (32.0 tackles, 12.5 TFL, 6.0 sacks) but world destroyer Anthony Zettel returns to anchor the line. Last year Zettel lead the team in sacks (8.0), tackles for loss (17.0), and interceptions! (3) Its worth mentioning that Zettel is also 6-4 and 284 pounds. Having the defensive monster that is Anthony Zettel will help maintain the line, but Penn State will still need some contributions from younger players to be as good as they were last season.
The nation’s 10th best secondary brings back its two best safeties and three best cornerbacks, and we’ll ignore the fact that none of those players had more interceptions than Anthony Zettel. Safeties Jordan Lucas (47.5 tackles, 9 passes defended) and Marcus Allen (46.5 tackles, 3 passes defended) lead the way for a unit that has a little room for improvement, but is still one of the nation’s best.
SPECIAL TEAMS PREVIEW:
The Nittany Lion special teams unit was not good in 2014, and that trend will most likely continue in 2015. Sam Ficken wasn’t terrible as far as kickers go (he hit on about 80% of his field goals), but now he’s gone and there’s no real replacement yet. Both punters Daniel Pasquariello and Chris Gulla return, but both of them only average 37.3 yards per punt. (Chris Gradone averaged 37.9 last year) Penn State also lacks any sort of return threat; they averaged 7.6 yards per return on punts and 21.2 on kickoffs. Head coach James Franklin prides himself on good special teams and that was a major part of his success at Vanderbilt. Look for the special teams to improve this year, but not by that much.
Penn State will easily make a bowl this year if only because of the defense (and an easy non-conference schedule). The play of the offense is what will determine if it’s the Heart of Dallas Bowl or the Citrus Bowl.
The Best Case Scenario: Everything clicks on both sides of the ball and this is a double digit wins team. Hackenberg comes out of the gate guns blazing and is a Heisman candidate. The defense stifles opponents and the Nittany Lions blow out teams. Outside of a trip to Columbus in October, they handle their business and go into the game against Michigan St. with a 10-1 record and a trip to the Rose Bowl on the line.
The Worst Case Scenario: The offense is once again anemic as Hackenberg spends more time on his back than in the pocket. The defense is still good, but not good enough to drag this team through B1G Ten play. Thanks to an easy non-conference schedule and wins against Rutgers and Indiana, Penn State barely scrapes to six wins and a lower tier bowl.