Let’s begin this one by recognizing the head coaching marvel that is Bill O’Brien.
In about the most thankless position possible, taking over for Joe Paterno who had been the Nittany Lions’ head coach for the last eight thousand years, in the midst of a massive NCAA smackdown, during a change in university leadership, with reduced scholarships and no chance at postseason play, O’Brien came in and went 8-4 and 7-5, trained up Matt McGloin from Penn State benchwarmer to NFL franchise quarterback, and kept the ship afloat.
He’s out, having left State College to be the head coach of the NFL’s Houston Texans (as every single human who follows football knew he eventually would). But he did exactly what he was hired to do: tread water so that Penn State could eventually bring in a real home-run hire.
That man is James Franklin. The former Vanderbilt Commodores head coach took the perennial SEC doormat and went 9-4 in each of his two final seasons, notching statement victories over Tennessee, Ole Miss, Georgia, and Florida, and won two bowl games. In the short stretch of time since taking over at Penn State, Franklin (and almost his entire former Vanderbilt staff) has made the Nittany Lions a recruiting powerhouse and shifted the balance of power in the Big Ten squarely to the East division. Penn State still won’t be eligible for the postseason until Franklin’s third year (assuming he’s still around; you never can tell in this day and age), but the Nittany faithful are ready to make a splash now.
Franklin takes over a team that played some terribly inconsistent football in 2013. There were some good wins mixed in with some confusing losses, and after week two at no point in the season did Penn State win or lose two games in a row. The Nittanies developed a nasty habit of playing really well one week then really poorly the next.
Average score, game following a loss: Penn State 35.4, Opponent 20.4 (5-0)
Average score, game following a win: Opponent 32.5, Penn State 24 (1-5)
Beating #18 Michigan and #14 Wisconsin on the road? Great! Getting blown out 44-24 by Indiana and 63-14 by Ohio State? Not so great. Now, some inconsistency was to be expected breaking in a true freshman quarterback (the phenomenal Christian Hackenberg), but even while Penn State was able to keep punching back late (2-1 in overtime games), they saw a few games get away that I’m sure they’d like to have back (Indiana’s 20 unanswered in the fourth quarter, Nebraska’s 73-yard march with a third-string quarterback to kick an overtime-forcing field goal).
PENN STATE OFFENSE
With Hackenberg behind center, the Nittany Lions accomplished something pretty close to being “multiple” in 2013. Hackenberg had more or less a one-man receiving corps (Allen Robinson, 150 targets for 1,432 yards) but the 6’4”, 220 lb. freshman threw just shy of 3,000 yards with 20 touchdowns (plus four on the ground) and ten interceptions.
Hope someone’s ready to step up. With Robinson’s departure, Hackenberg will have to get better at distributing the ball (Robinson accounted for 39% of Hackenberg’s targets and 48% of his yardage). The three candidates are Geno Lewis, Matt Zantaletto, and Richy Anderson, (tight end Jesse James will feature as well) and while Lewis returns the most targets and catches from 2013, he will need to improve a dismal 50% catch rate. Third down conversions were a weakness for Penn State in 2013 and without the dependable Robinson, someone else will have to prove themselves a playmaker. (Update: alert reader John informs me that Richy Anderson is no longer on the team.)
In the ground game, bruising (and a bit fumble-y) senior running back Zach Zwinak returns. Zwinak will return to the lineup after not playing in the spring game with a wrist injury. He’ll be joined by fellow hulk Bill Belton (the pair combined for 1,700+ yards in 2013) and the Lions will also add walk-on Cole Chiappialle as a third back with matching initials (apparently Penn State is owning recruiting in the Marvel universe), who has fans excited after a nine-carry, 63-yard performance in the spring game.
Seems simple, right? Ground and pound while passing game works out its kinks? Well, maybe not. Two experienced O-liners return, and one is out with injury. If that weren’t bad enough, apparently depth is such an issue on the offensive line that Franklin is moving tight ends to the line to ease the pain. Despite four of the starters having literally never played a snap of college football before August 30, one would assume that these three- and four-star guys should have enough natural ability to get by for awhile (especially against the non-UCF representatives of Penn State’s nonconference schedule). There will be incoming freshmen, but none of whom will likely be prepared to contribute immediately, so for a while the Lions are just going to have to cross their fingers and hope no one else gets injured. In the meantime Zwinak and Belton may have to just bulldoze defenders.
PENN STATE DEFENSE
New defensive coordinator Bob Shoop will likely bring in his bend-but-don’t-break style of defense from Vanderbilt, and he acquires a wealth of depth and talent in the front seven: almost every starter returns, including Mike Hull who will lead a strong linebacking corps, and defensive lineman C.J. Olaniyan, who recorded five sacks and three forced fumbles in 2013.
For most of its games in last year, Penn State played stout against the run (against teams not named Ohio State and Central Florida, the Penn State D held opponents to just 3.1 yards per attempt, most impressively done against the ground game onslaught of Wisconsin (just 120 yards allowed).
The passing defense was less effective. In games against conference opponents (and UCF) teams averaged 7.6 yards per attempt, which was more than enough to keep drives moving.
Basically, they bent a little too much.
At least in the secondary the Nittany Lions return all but one starter and have lots of depth. Shoop will need to shore up this unit if they want to have success against the Marylands and Indianas of the conference. The numbers (55 tackles, 13 pass breakups) indicate that cornerback Jordan Lucas was getting targeted hard, but he’ll get plenty of safety help from Adrian Amos and Ryan Keiser, the latter of whom also grabbed three picks.
PENN STATE SPECIAL TEAMS
Sam Ficken returns, but that may not be encouraging news for Nittany Lions fans as he whiffed on four field goals inside of 40 yards in 2013 . . . and while he only missed one PAT (against Nebraska), it wound up costing them the game.
Geno Lewis was decent at returning kickoffs in 2013 at 22 yards per return, but the Lions need someone who can pose more of a threat in the punt return game, especially to get a boost in field position to help out what might initially be a slow offense.
The schedule shapes up pretty darn nice for the Nittany Lions in 2014. After the Big Ten’s easiest nonconference slate (make sure to tune in at 7:30AM on August 30 for the UCF game in Dublin!) the Lions get both B1G newcomers, misses Nebraska and Wisconsin, and conference heavyweights Ohio State and Michigan State both come to State College. Potential trouble games are road trips to Indiana and Maryland, because those offenses will not be easy to keep up with, especially for a secondary that may not be the strongest. That said, even with question marks on offense, a team with a pulse goes 9-3.
Too bad there still won’t be a conference championship or bowl. They’re working on that.