Big Ten Football Previews – Penn State Nittany Lions
Editor's Note: This is the ninth in a series of my annual summer Big Ten football previews. Stay tuned for the next review at a time and date TBD...
Team: Penn State Nittany Lions
2005 Prediction / actual: 6-5, 3-5 (T-7th), Music City / 11-1, 7-1 (T-1st), Orange
2004 Prediction / actual: 6-5, 4-4 (T-5th), Music City / 4-7, 2-6 (9th)
2003 Prediction / actual: 7-5, 4-4 (T-5th) / 3-9, 1-7 (T-9th)
2002 Prediction / actual: 9-3, 6-2 (T-1st) / 9-4, 5-3 (4th)
2001 Prediction / actual: 5-6, 3-5 (T-7th) / 5-6, 4-4 (T-4th)
Returning Starters: 5 offense, 4 defense, 2 kickers
Key Returnees: TB Tony Hunt, TB Austin Scott, FB BranDon Snow, WR Deon Butler, WR Derrick Williams, LT Levi Brown, DT Jay Alford, LB Paul Posluszny, LB Dan Connor, LB Tim Shaw, CB Justin King, P Jeremy Kapinos
Key Losses: QB Michael Robinson, DE Tamba Hali, CB Alan Zemaitis, CB Anwar Phillips
Looking Back ... One of JoePa’s best. That’s the answer to the question – where does the 2005 Penn State football season stack up against the many successes Coach Joe Paterno has had in State College? A miracle last play score by Michigan is all that stood between the Nittany Lions and an unbeaten season. After two straight losing campaigns and four in the last five, to win 11 games in ’05 was nothing short of amazing. It showed us that Paterno wasn’t losing his ability to attract big time talent or coach. It also reminded us that maybe we ought to let the guy coach as long as he wants because I’ll be darned if the guy, well past what should be “snow bird” status, still isn’t better at this job than 95% of the coaches in America.
The big difference in 2005, according to the masses of Penn State faithful, was Paterno’s willingness to let potential impact freshmen see the field earlier and more often than in the past. It was also the offensive game planning of Galen Hall and the settling in of formerly transient (part time QB, RB and WR) Michael Robinson as the unquestioned leader of the offense. Whatever it was, it was shear brilliance as Penn State fought and clawed its way back to the top where it belongs. Can it be sustained for 2006? That remains to be seen, but there is no doubt that 2005 will long be remembered as one of the best of the long and storied JoePa era…
Outlook - Offense ...Four of five starters from the offensive line? Gone. MVP from last season’s rise from the ashes? Playing on Sundays. Can Penn State move forward without first stepping back? Yes. No doubt, what Penn State had last year on offense was good, sound senior leadership and players hungry to go out on top after a dismal few seasons. But this year’s group could be better. The wideouts are more seasoned. The tailback tandem is back. The new signal caller isn’t really a rookie. All are great reasons not to assume that the Nittany Lions will have to step back before moving forward. All are great reasons to believe this team can be as good as last year.
The first position that needs to replace a leader and star is quarterback. Anthony Morelli is just the person to fill the role. After coming in as a highly touted recruit, Morelli has been biding time behind Zach Mills and Michael Robinson and is now primed to put his stamp on the Penn State program. It will be no picnic to replace the 806 yards rushing, 2,350 yards passing and 28 total touchdowns that Robinson provided, but Morelli is up the to task. He has good size, a strong arm and a good command of the offense. If the junior falters, Paul Ciancilo and Kevin Suhey are waiting in the wings. The good news is, even though Morelli is extremely unlikely to gain a quarter of the yards rushing that Robinson did, he doesn’t need to due to the fantastic stable of tailbacks and corps of receivers around him.
Ask most so-called experts and they will point to the young PSU receiving corps as the strength of this offense. Ask the running backs and they’ll point to themselves. Rightfully so. Led by a pair of solid seniors at tailback and arguably the team’s second best blocker (Levi Brown is the other) at fullback, Penn State will have a very well balanced attack this fall. Tony Hunt rushed for over 1000 yards in 2005 and that with a quarterback going for over 800. Imagine what he and fellow senior Austin Scott can do with another 150 carries to spread between them? Scott was one of the heroes of the Orange Bowl when Hunt went down with an injury, so the two are quite interchangeable. Toss in a third stringer the caliber of Rodney Kinlaw and you can see where Robinson’s output will be handled. What will really make this unit special is premier blocking fullback BranDon Snow. Snow, as do most fullbacks, often goes unnoticed in the Penn State attack but is key to the success of the running game. If Hunt or Scott or both rush for 1,000 yards plus, the MVP trophy should go to Snow.
Now on to the group that the experts rave about – Penn State’s wideouts. Is there a better collection of fast, young, game breakers in the nation? Deon Butler, Derrick Williams and Jordan Norwood will be the envy of every coach in the Big Ten if they aren’t already. Each can step in and be a big play guy. Throw in cornerback Justin King, who played primarily as a receiver in ’05 and your head will spin with the quality of the rotation the Nittany Lions coaching staff can run with. The best of the lot is Williams. Had it not been for the broken arm against Michigan, Williams would have been All Big Ten. As it is, Butler and King stepped in big time, and Norwood was the star of the Orange Bowl. Terrell Golden is a junior to look for on the field at times as well. At tight end, the Nits are breaking in a new starter in Patrick Hall. He had little in the way of numbers last season, but is a good blocker and provides a nice safety valve for Morelli. Sophomore Jordan Lyons has the better hands but Penn State needs a sound blocker first given the state of the offensive line.
Speaking of the offensive line, this might be the Achilles Heel of the PSU attack this fall because four starters need to be replaced. Senior left tackle Levi Brown is undoubtedly one of the best in the Big Ten, but if the Nittany Lions hope to have as much success on this side of the ball as last year, the four new starters will need to gel and mold into a solid group ASAP. The only other senior starter is right guard Robert Price and he will be pushed by sophomore Greg Harrison. Junior right tackle John Shaw has good size and athleticism and will need to step in and be a difference maker right away. Sophomores A.Q. Shipley (center) and Gerald Cadogan (left guard) could become the future of the offensive line. There isn’t much in the way of depth or experience on the bench, but as long as the Nittany Lions can get some quality time out of the aforementioned Harrison, senior tackle Mark Farris and Chris Aulette, Penn State should be just fine up front, where more games than not are won and lost in this conference.
Outlook - Defense ... A lot of the success in 2005 stemmed from the pressure the front seven could put on the opponent’s offense. That pressure was a result of a savvy corps of veterans in the secondary. Well, three of the starters up front and all of the secondary has departed. Does that mean Penn State will be rebuilding on defense this fall? Not entirely. There is enough experience returning, sprinkled with young talent that the Nittany Lion defense could, quite possibly, be better this fall than last.
So, how does a defense that loses three starters in the front four get better the next season? It won’t be easy, but it is possible. Ends Tamba Hali and Matthew Rice are gone and so are their 16 combined sacks. Also gone is tackle Scott Paxson. However, Jay Alford returns and he racked up 8.5 sacks himself a season ago. Alford isn’t as big as some tackles around the Big Ten, but that means he has more quickness, which allows him to be a disruptive force inside. Senior Ed Johnson is back after taking some time away and should become a solid tag team partner for Alford. Steve Roach and Elijah Robinson will also battle for time and add to the rotation. Sophomore end Josh Gaines and senior Jim Shaw will be called upon to pick up the numbers that left with Hali and Rice. That won’t be an easy task, but there is help in sophomore Mike Lucian. There isn’t a household name in this group, aside from Alford, but if the Nittany Lions can get consistency from the front four, the defense will be just fine.
Those who have read my previews might be scratching their heads right now. After all, doesn’t Andy usually rate a defense mostly on what it has up front? Well, yes but most teams don’t have three linebackers behind the front four like Penn State has. Think Ohio State from 2005, but maybe even better than that. Now do you have a grasp for why this defense will be just fine come September? Paul Posluszny is one of the better linebackers to ever play in the Big Ten. That might be saying a lot, but it isn’t a stretch, not at all. And what makes him even more threatening is the presence of Dan Connor on the other side and Tim Shaw in the middle. This trio will see themselves on the highlight reel often this fall. Penn State is pretty well stocked for the future as well and has some really good depth if it is needed in the form of Tyrell Sales, Sean Lee and Dontey Brown. These sophomores will see plenty of time against the cupcakes, which bodes well for this season and beyond in Happy Valley.
The biggest worry for the Penn State defense is the secondary. All four starters are gone, and most of the departed were mainstays – i.e. started multiple seasons. The best news is that Justin King is ready to burst on the scene as a top-notch cover corner. The offense might not want to let him go so easily but King will be needed to help make the defense as good as it can be. Fellow sophomore Tony Davis will hold down the other starting cornerback position, while seniors Donnie Johnson and Nolan McCready will step in at safety. Replacing the likes of Anwar Phillips, Alan Zemaitis, Chris Harrell and Calvin Lowry will be a daunting task, but one the Nittany Lions need to do well if they are to sniff double digit wins again this fall. Assistance should come from Anthony Scirrotto and PSU was relying on receiver Mark Rubin but another major injury has cut into at least the start of the 2006 season. Beyond that, PSU is young in the defensive backfield and that can be a big problem in a league with so many veteran QBs.
Outlook - Special Teams ... Penn State is in great shape on special teams. Kevin Kelly was as good as a freshman can get and should be able to make the kicks that win Penn State the close games this fall. Senior punter Jeremy Kapinos is a field position specialist with a better than you might think leg. He’ll be critical early on as the defense grows up. The return game will be nothing less than explosive.
9/2 – AKRON
9/9 – at Notre Dame
9/16 – YOUNGSTOWN STATE
9/23 – at Ohio State
9/30 – NORTHWESTERN
10/7 – at Minnesota
10/14 – MICHIGAN
10/21 – ILLINOIS
10/28 – at Purdue
11/4 – at Wisconsin
11/11 – TEMPLE
11/18 – MICHIGAN STATE
Key Games: 9/9 – at Notre Dame, 9/23 – at Ohio Staten, 10/14 – Michigan, 11/4 – at Wisconsin, 11/18 – Michigan State
Prediction ... This won’t be a repeat of 2005, but it also won’t be a repeat of 2003 (the last time PSU came off of a big season and lost a solid corps of senior playmakers). It starts off relatively easy, although Akron has been far more competitive of late and gets tough in a hurry with a trip to South Bend. That starts the Big Ten on a Notre Dame binge and would send a perfect message were the Nittany Lions to return home the victors. After another cupcake, there is an even more daunting road trip – this time to Columbus where the Buckeyes will be itching for payback. The only tough road contest after that is a late fall trek to Wisconsin, but with Michigan and MSU at home and no Iowa on the slate, it should be another good, winning season for soon to be octogenarian Joe Paterno.
OOC: 3-1 (loss to Notre Dame)
B10: 6-2 (wins over Northwestern, Minnesota, Michigan, Illinois, Purdue and Michigan State)
Overall: 9-3, T-3rd in the conference, Capital One Bowl berth