I’m not sure anyone could have predicted 2012 Penn State to do what they did.
Reeling from crippling NCAA sanctions limiting scholarships, banning postseason play, and allowing any player to transfer without the one-year waiting period (in all, eighteen players vamooshed). One can only imagine the trepidation in State College leading up to the season: first year in in 46 that someone not named Joe Paterno would be coaching being foremost among the question marks.
And for all the talk that his best days were behind him, Paterno left the program in pretty good shape: Joe was collecting 11-win seasons as recently as 2005, 2008, and 2009 (and was very likely an upset loss to Iowa away from the national title in 2008), not to mention a decent 9-4 season in his final year at the helm in 2011.
Then all hell broke loose in State College as the Jerry Sandusky scandal came to light. Paterno, along with half the Penn State education and athletic administrators, were fired for failing to act. Paterno, apparently a longtime battler with lung cancer, passed away in January of 2012. That summer, the NCAA pounded Penn State with the aforementioned sanctions, all but ensuring Penn State football’s mediocrity for years to come.
Credit to new coach Bill O’Brien for even taking the job in the shadow of the Sandusky sanctions, not to mention to lead the Nittany Lions to the 8-4 season they accomplished. After a rough start (0-2 with losses to Ohio and Virginia) the Lions rebounded to finish 8-2, with their only losses coming to Ohio State and Nebraska, and producing a surprisingly effective offense and maintaining the Paterno legacy of solid defense.
That said, the 2012 season was carried off mostly thanks to senior leadership and adrenaline. O’Brien will have a job achieving similar results in the wasteland left after the NCAA blew through.
PENN STATE OFFENSE
Departed senior Matt McGloin didn’t get enough credit in 2012: he completed 61% of his passes for 24 touchdowns and only five interceptions, and though he took too many sacks (Penn State couldn’t run the ball, and opposing defenses knew it), his steady play elevated the Penn State offense to a level it hadn’t known under Paterno in a few good years.
And then he graduated. Part of that nuclear bomb of sanctions the NCAA dropped means no bowl games or conference championships, and no bowl games or conference championships means it’s hard to recruit. And when it’s hard to recruit, you wind up with two guys at quarterback who have never played a snap of FBS football before. The candidates are five-star true freshman Christian Hackenberg and junior-college transfer Tyler Ferguson. Just reading the available blurbs about each candidate, I think it would behoove Coach O’Brien to start Hackenberg, seeing as how he has 2012’s entire receiving corps returning to soften the transition and any program should be salivating at the opportunity to get four years of production out of a five-star recruit. Either way, with scholarship reductions kicking in, Penn State can’t afford to redshirt Hackenberg should Ferguson get injured (there are no other quarterbacks on the roster).
Speaking of depth, at offensive line and running back, there is none, and that’s a result of those scholarship reductions. If someone gets hurt, the entire operation could grind to a halt pretty darn quickly.
PENN STATE DEFENSE
In a nutshell, good at forcing passing downs but not so good at holding up on those downs. Case in point: in both of Penn State’s late-season losses, Ohio State went 8-for-16 on third downs and Nebraska went 9-for-18. The ability to clamp down on drives is what makes the difference between a win or a loss.
The Nittany Lions have a lot of talent in the front seven, if not experience, but are paper thin at linebacker depth (there’s that magic word again). There will be a lot of underclassman seeing significant playing time, and these guys need to do a better job of getting to the quarterback on passing downs (PSU ranked just 75th in the NCAA on passing down sacks).
The secondary should help in that regard as nearly all components of a solid unit return, though replacing stellar pass-breaker-uppers Stephon Morris and Jacob Fagnano won’t be an easy task. If the back four can hold their coverage it should really help the front seven get to the quarterback on those critical downs that the Nittany Lions couldn’t win in 2012.
PENN STATE SPECIAL TEAMS
A pair of solid kickers in punter Alex Butterworth (yep, Butterworth) and placekicker Sam Ficken return. Butterworth pinned opponents inside their own 20 on 75% of his punts and while Ficken struggled from beyond the 40-yard mark, inside of 40 he was darn near automatic, which will be a comfort to Penn State fans (if their offense can get to the red zone they’ll pretty much be guaranteed points).
SO WHAT NOW?
The schedule works out decently for a nine-win season. The problem, of course, is twofold: depth is an issue, especially at running back and offensive line, which are the two essential components for holding onto a late lead. The other problem is this: if you’re a Nittany Lion, what are you playing for with no hope for a postseason? 2012 was defined by a team determined to play for pride, and they overperformed as a result. But pride and adrenaline can only carry a team so far: eventually. the other guy will just be bigger, stronger, or faster.
Two tough road games: October 26 to Ohio State (preceded by a bye week) and November 30 to Wisconsin to close the regular season. Michigan and Nebraska visit State College. Watch out for Syracuse in week one at a neutral-site game in New Jersey. If Penn State can steal three of these five games they’ll likely finish 10-2, although 7-5 seems equally likely.
NAMES TO REMEMBER: P Alex Butterworth (when your only notable player is a punter, you’ve got issues)
Nebraska plays Penn State in State College, PA, on November 23, 2013. Nebraska leads the all-time series 8-7. They last met in Lincoln on November 10, 2012, and Nebraska won 32-23.