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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 18: Penn State

Players drift in, drift out for Penn State. Joe Paterno remains the program's one constant.

Come rain or shine, win or lose, there’s always been Joe Paterno. I hope, I truly hope, that this year isn’t his last. I hope for selfish reasons, not thinking of the welfare of the Penn State program but for my own personal sense of what’s right about this game: Paterno is good for college football, just as college football has been good for him. Recent filings from Big Ten media days portrayed Paterno as more frail than usual, lacking his usual vim and vigor. Perhaps he’ll regain his stamina come September. Most likely — I hope — he will. College football needs Joe Paterno, just as it needed him in 1966, when his first took this job, or in 1982, when he won his first title, or in 1986, when he won his second.

Conference
Big Ten

Location
University Park, Pa.

Nickname
Nittany Lions.

Returning starters
12 (7 offense, 5 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 10

2009 record
(11-2, 6-2)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 10

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 4
    Youngstown St.
  • Sept. 11
    at Alabama
  • Sept. 18
    Kent St.
  • Sept. 25
    Temple
  • Oct. 2
    at Iowa
  • Oct. 9
    Illinois
  • Oct. 23
    at Minnesota
  • Oct. 30
    Michigan
  • Nov. 6
    Northwestern
  • Nov. 13
    at Ohio St.
  • Nov. 20
    Indiana
  • Nov. 27
    Michigan St.

Last year’s prediction

Penn State remains in fine shape, and I don’t think we’ll see much drop-off whatsoever from last year’s team to this fall. But I do think the Nittany Lions trail Ohio State in the race for the Big Ten title, though it’s close; much can be made of the season-defining game against the Buckeyes in early November. Regardless of my belief that Penn State comes in a close second in the Big Ten, I do think very highly of this team, and believe it should end the season very much in the B.C.S. hunt.

2009 recap

In a nutshell These Nittany Lions didn’t fall short of their preseason expectations, at least my preseason expectations. The conference belonged to Ohio State, especially after the Buckeyes dismantled Penn State in a prime time showing in Happy Valley. Iowa also got the better of Penn State, likewise on the road, but P.S.U. took care of business the rest of the way. The defense was superb: only the Buckeyes, Hawkeyes and Indiana topped 17 points, with the Hoosiers scoring 20 in an 11-point defeat. The Nittany Lions ended the year third nationally in scoring (12.2 points per game), sixth in rush defense (89.9 yards per game), 23rd against the pass (184.6 yards per game) and ninth in total defense. So yeah, this group got it done. The offense did take a step back, however. After ranking 11th nationally in scoring in 2008 — and first in the Big Ten by more than eight points per game — the Nittany Lions slid down to 52nd nationally in that category in 2009. Most of the same pieces returned last fall, though P.S.U. had to break in a new receiver corps. More rebuilding is occurring on offense in 2010, especially with two-time all-conference quarterback Daryll Clark lost to graduation.

High point Only three wins prior to bowl play against eventual bowl participants: Temple, Minnesota and Northwestern. That makes a hard-fought, mud-aided Capital One Bowl victory over then-No. 12 L.S.U. the high point of the season.

Low point Losses in the two biggest games of the season: Iowa and Ohio State. Making matters worse, both came at home. Perfect against everyone else, Penn State dropped home games against the two teams it had to beat in order to reach the Rose Bowl. The Loss to Iowa may have been more painful – seeing as Iowa scored 16 unanswered fourth quarter points – but the O.S.U. loss was more embarrassing, if that makes any sense.

Tidbit Yes, I am aware that F.B.S. teams play more games in a season now than, say, 20 years ago. (More than even five years ago, actually.) Nevertheless, take note of the fact that the Nittany Lions have won 51 games since 2005, the program’s second-most over a five-year span since Paterno was took over in 1966. It trails by only a single victory the 52 won from 1971-75.

Tidbit (B.C.S. edition) Penn State has won each of the four B.C.S. bowl games, not including the B.C.S. title game. Why not count the latter? Because it’s not a historic bowl game, merely the invention of the B.C.S. system. The four real B.C.S. bowls are the Rose, Sugar, Orange and Fiesta. Penn State won the Rose Bowl in 1995, beating Oregon; the Sugar Bowl in 1983 (Georgia); the Orange Bowl in 1969-70, 1974 and 2006; and the Fiesta Bowl in 1977, 1987, 1992 and 1997. Paterno has won all four of those bowls and the Cotton Bowl, the only coach in N.C.A.A. history to do so. He’s the only coach in history to do a lot of things.

Tidbit (experience edition) One of my all-time favorite tidbits. Paterno’s coaching staff brings 153 combined years of experience at Penn State into the 2010 season. The least-tenured members of the P.S.U. staff are safeties coach Kermit Buggs and offensive coordinator Galen Hall, who brings seven years of experience to the table. Offensive line coach Dick Anderson has 33 years tenure; defensive coordinator Tom Bradley 32 years; defensive line coach Larry Johnson 15 years; offensive line assistant and tight ends coach Bill Kenney 23 years; wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator Mike McQueary 10 years; quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno 16 years; and linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden 10 years. I think these guys know what they’re doing.

Former players in the N.F.L.

40 DT Anthony Adams (Chicago), DT Jay Alford (New York Giants), LB Navorro Bowman (San Francisco), OT Levi Brown (Arizona), WR Deon Butler (Seattle), QB Kerry Collins (Tennessee), LB Dan Connor (Carolina), WR Bobby Engram (Cleveland), DE Maurice Evans (Chicago), TE John Gilmore (Tampa Bay), K Robbie Gould (Chicago), LB Tamba Hali (Kansas City), LB Josh Hull (St. Louis), WR Bryant Johnson (Detroit), RB Larry Johnson (Washington), DT Ed Johnson (Carolina), P Jeremy Kapinos (Green Bay), DT Jimmy Kennedy (Minnesota), CB Justin King (St. Louis), OG Dennis Landolt (New York Giants), LB Sean Lee (Dallas), LB Aaron Maybin (Buffalo), TE Sean McHugh (Pittsburgh), OT Kareem McKenzie (New York Giants), WR Jordan Norwood (Philadelphia), DT Jared Odrick (Miami), OG Rich Ohrnberger (New England), DT Scott Paxson (Pittsburgh), LB Paul Posluszny (Buffalo), TE Andrew Quarless (Green Bay), OG Tyler Reed (Chicago), RB Michael Robinson (San Francisco), CB Lydell Sargeant (Buffalo), S Bryant Scott (Buffalo), LB Tim Shaw (Chicago), C A.Q. Shipley (Philadelphia), TE Mickey Shuler (Minnesota), TE Tony Stewart (Oakland), LB Cameron Wake (Miami), WR Derrick Williams (Detroit).

Arbitrary top five list

Paterno’s best Penn State teams
1. 1986: 12-0.
2. 1994: 12-0.
3. 1982: 11-1.
4. 1973: 12-0.
5. 1969: 11-0.

Coaching

Joe Paterno (Brown ‘50), 394-133-3 over nearly half a century as the head coach at Penn State. For those keeping track at home, this coming season will mark Paterno’s 45th year as the P.S.U. head coach, meaning he’s spent roughly half his life in this position; he’s spent 61 years in total as part of the Penn State coaching staff. Since Paterno took over in 1966, there have been 860 head coaching changes on the F.B.S. level; since the Nittany Lions entered the Big Ten in 1993, there have been 32 different head coaches in the conference. There is really nothing I can add to the Paterno conversation that hasn’t already been said: the man is a legend – comfortably among the top 10 coaches in the history of college football – and a revered figure at the university for both his on-field prowess and his many off-field contributions to the good of Penn State. Both he and his program are in the midst of a beautiful rebound after going 26-33 from 2000-4. The Nittany Lions have three times won 11 games over the past five seasons, sandwiching an 11-1 finish in 2005 and the 11-2 record reached in each of the past two seasons with a pair of 9-4 marks in 2006-7. Each of the previous 11-win seasons saw Penn State earn a B.C.S. bowl berth, the Orange Bowl — an overtime win over Florida State — preceding 2008′s Rose Bowl defeat. If anything, the 51-13 mark P.S.U. has posted over the last four seasons has proved many of Paterno’s – and Penn State’s – doubters wrong, as the near-consensus was that the longtime coach had begun to lose his successful touch; that idea has been proved wrong in hindsight, but it was hard, at the time, to disagree with the sentiment. Penn State bottomed out at 7-16 from 2003-4, including a program-worst 3-9 in 2003.

Players to watch

Barring injury, Evan Royster will break Penn State’s career rushing mark sometime in mid-October. It’s time we start including him in the prestigious pantheon of Penn State backs, a group that includes John Cappelletti, Curt Warner, Blair Thomas and Ki-Jana Carter, among others. Royster is coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard season, with last year’s 1,169-yard total joining his 1,236 yards rushing in 2008. He was a first-team all-Big Ten pick last fall despite playing behind a largely rebuilt offensive front, one that featured three new starters and several different starting lineups over the season’s first six games. The offensive line is again entering a rebuilding phase in 2010, but there’s no reason to think Royster won’t continue to rank among the most productive backs in the country. He’s an all-American and national award candidate for a reason. When Royster needs a breather, Penn State can turn to speedy substitute Stephfon Green, now a senior, or bruiser Brandon Beachum.

Now, about that offensive line: it will be a work in progress. Penn State can feel secure in right guard Stefan Wisniewski, who ranks alongside Florida State’s Rodney Hudson as the top interior offensive lineman in the country. The senior moves out to guard after playing center in 2009; before that, in 2008, Wisniewski played left guard. He can do it all, obviously. Penn State can feel secure in its entire strong side of the line, in fact, as Wisniewski is joined by senior right tackle Lou Eliades. The task at center will fall to fifth-year senior Doug Klopacz, who has had an injury-plagued career. It’s now or never for Klopacz — he’s Penn State’s only realistic option at center. Quinn Barham will get the call at left tackle, though the junior brings little game experience to the table. As for left guard, Penn State could either turn to DeOn’tae Pannell or Matt Stankiewitch; both started games in 2009. I don’t have incredibly high hopes for this group, though Wisniewski is a star. It’s the biggest question mark on this offense, more so than quarterback, believe it or not. Almost have to believe this coaching staff will round this group into form, however.

The receiver corps was depleted by graduation following the 2008 season. In 2010, this group is loaded, experienced and ready to help Penn State break in a new quarterback. The Nittany Lions return eight receivers who lettered a year ago, though one returning starter, Chaz Powell, moves to defense in 2010. Derek Moye had a breakout 2009 campaign, leading the Nittany Lions in receptions (48) and receiving yards (785). He cracked the 100-yard mark three times on the year, twice in Big Ten play, and made a big scoring grab in Penn State’s bowl win. Senior Graham Zug also stepped into the void, leading Penn State with seven touchdown grabs. That pair will start, of course, with either Brett Brackett or Curtis Drake getting the nod in the slot. One year later, Penn State should feel very secure about its receiver corps.

Penn State has some work to do up front, particularly at linebacker. As for the interior of the line, the Nittany Lions must replace Jared Odrick, the reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and disruptive presence at tackle a season ago. To be fair, Ollie Ogbu returns at nose tackle, which is a pretty good thing. He brings 22 career starts into his senior season. The hope is that Devon Still can step into Odrick’s spot and fare well, though asking him to duplicate his predecessor’s impact is too tall a task. James Terry will spell Still at tackle, with Jordan Hill currently riding behind Ogbu on the nose. Depth at tackle would be increased should Brandon Ware work his way out of the doghouse, but he’s a question mark for the Nittany Lions in 2010.

No such issues at end: Penn State is in wonderful shape. The top line ranks among the best in the Big Ten — if not now, it will by the end of 2010. Depth is also no concern. Juniors Jack Crawford (31 tackles, 14.5 for loss, 5.5 sacks) and Eric Latimore (21 tackles, 3.5 sacks) are the two starters — a duo chock-full of potential. Look for Crawford in particular to have a big year. Kevion Latham and Sean Stanley round out a talented second team. It will be hard for the latter duo to push the starters for meaningful snaps, but each has the ability to make an impact when called upon.

Three new starters at linebacker. Now, I don’t know if you were aware, but they call Penn State Linebacker U. for a reason: it’s something to do with a pipeline, or something to that degree. Yes, Sean Lee, Josh Hull and Navorro Bowman will be difficult to replace. However, there’s no doubt that the new starting group brings undeniable talent of their own into 2010. It might just take some time for this trio to round into form.

The most experienced returning linebacker is senior Bani Gbadyu, who will get the nod on the strong side. He made five starts a season ago, chipping with 37 tackles and an interception, though he didn’t always fare well in the starting lineup. He’s the starter for now, and will retain that role if he produces; still, the Lions could also call on sophomores Gerald Hodges or Michael Mauti at his spot. He’s joined at outside linebacker by junior Nathan Stupar, who played well when given the opportunity last September. Against Akron, for example — and yes, I know, Akron — Stupar led P.S.U. with 12 stops. When all is said and done, I think Gbadyu plays well enough to stay in the starting lineup. Senior Chris Colasanti might find it harder to do so at middle linebacker, especially given Mauti’s athletic ability. On Sept. 4, it will be Gbadyu, Stupar and Colasanti.

No surprises in the secondary. Junior D’Anton Lynn returns at cornerback after having a very good debut season in the starting lineup. If last year is any indication, and if Lynn continues to develop, he’s an all-conference performer. It’s logical that sophomore Stephon Morris will step in for A.J. Wallace at the other cornerback spot, as Morris is the only returning defensive back with experience at the position. Morris made a single start a year ago, though he played an important role as a reserve cornerback throughout the season.

Juniors Nick Sukay and Drew Astorino return at safety. Sukay started every game at free safety in 2009, making 41 tackles, a pair of interceptions and finishing second in the Big Ten with 11 pass break ups. Astorino made 12 starts at strong safety — hero safety, in Penn State’s parlance — making 62 tackles with a single pick. While Sukay does a nice job in pass coverage, Astorino made his presence felt as an added figure in the box against the run.

Depth in the secondary will come from junior Chaz Powell, the aforementioned receiver making a position change, and redshirt freshmen Derrick Thomas, Evan lewis and Mike Wallace. At safety, junior Andrew Dailey and redshirt freshman Stephen Obeng-Agyapong currently sit behind Astorino and Sukay, respectively, on the depth chart.

Position battles to watch

Quarterback As noted, Penn State will be breaking in its first new quarterback since 2008. Daryll Clark did a fine job over the last two years, particularly in 2008, and his leadership will be very hard to replace. Penn State has four underclassmen battling for the open spot: sophomores Kevin Newsome and Matt McGloin and true freshmen Paul Jones — in for the spring — and Robert Bolden. Let’s not consider Jones and Bolden, as each will have a very hard time moving past the two sophomores due to their inexperience both in this offense and in the college game. Not to say either cannot make an impact in 2010, just that neither is the likely starter come September. Here’s what we know about Newsome and McGloin. Newsome is a tremendous athlete — like another former No. 12, Michael Robinson — who backed up Clark a year ago. He attempted 11 passes, completing eight, while rushing for 95 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Like Robinson before him, Newsome would allow Penn State to involve the quarterback more in the running game; the Nittany Lions like to do this. McGloin, a former walk-on, looks like the purer passer of the two, though he has yet to show his pocket ability in a game situation. To me, while the pair shared the top spot on the depth chart heading into fall camp, Newsome is the favorite. And this is not because McGloin is a former walk-on, believe me. We all know that P.S.U. is going to play the quarterback that gives it the best chance to win, regardless of the hoopla surrounding his arrival. I just think Newsome, with his game experience and dual-threat ability, is Penn State’s best option. Perhaps McGloin will see some time in the first month as the Lions continue to look at both players in early September. For now, unless Bolden or Jones can leapfrog past the loser of this competition and into the backup role, bother are headed for redshirt seasons.

Game(s) to watch

Well, that Alabama game certainly makes you stand up and take notice, doesn’t it? Two of college football’s historic elite, meeting for the first time since 1990? In case you had forgotten, these two programs meet every year from 1981-90. The 1985 tussle was a classic. The usual suspects in Big Ten play: Ohio State and Iowa, both on the road; Michigan, Michigan State and Northwestern at home. The Lions avoid Wisconsin, which helps.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Like most, I’m looking at this schedule and seeing three immediate losses: Alabama, Iowa and Ohio State. All three games are on the road, unfortunately. Right off the bat, considering questions at quarterback, offensive tackle and among the front seven, we’re looking at — at best — a 9-3 season for the Nittany Lions. I think Penn State will likely lose one additional game, perhaps a shocker at Minnesota or a home game to Michigan, Northwestern or Michigan State. So that’s where I stand: 8-4, 5-3 in the Big Ten, firmly among the Top 25 but not a B.C.S. contender. Still a good team, mind you. On any given Saturday, potentially a great one. When it comes to the offense, much will depend both on Newsome’s development under center and the play of P.S.U.’s new starters up front. In Newsome’s favor is a talented running back and an experienced receiver corps. It’s harder to say how the new starters will fare up front, particularly on the left side of the line. I know the defense has holes to fill, but to be quite honest, I’m not altogether concerned. Will see see another top five defense? No, probably not. There’s a better chance we see a repeat of last season’s success than a complete drop-off, of course, especially if P.S.U. can reload along the line and at linebacker. On a lesser team, led by a lesser staff, some of these concerns would be potentially fatal. Here, at Penn State, it’s just another year. Paterno and his guys will get this team ready to play, ready to go at full tilt, and should win eight games for the umpteenth time during the Paterno era. Still, a step back from last season. Hopefully, Paterno hangs around to see the benefits this year’s missteps will pay in 2011.

Dream season The quarterbacks surprise, the defense typically stingy: 11-1, 8-0 in the Big Ten.

Nightmare season For the first time since 2004, Penn State wins fewer than nine games. Even worse: the program’s five-win dip — from 11-2 to 6-6 — ties the worst single-season decline in program history.

In case you were wondering

Where do Penn State fans congregate? Penn State has way too many options to name in this space, but here are a few. The primary message boards can be found at Blue White Illustrated and Fight On State, though NittanyFootball.com and Linebacker-U are solid independent options. If you’re interested in a Penn State blog, check out Black Shoe DiariesHappy Hour Valley and Nittany Whiteout.

Up Next

Who is No. 17? Our next program’s home state has the highest birthrate in the United States, roughly 50 percent higher than the national average.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. Jim Dotter says:

    #17 = Utah! ( Special thanks to Google and Kaiser )

    BEAT ARMY!

  2. TresselBall says:

    If the nits can break in the QB fast, and real fast, they stand a chance. My guess is we lots of Royster, play action and the mobile QB.

  3. Alex Payne says:

    Imma say some good ole’ Mormon families, Utah!

  4. Tony77019 says:

    Mr. Myerberg:
    Your adulation of the legend is duly noted. However, when do you think was the last time OldPa actually coached? 2000? The 2004 season? JoePa is kind of like the mascot for Penn State, but the Lions already have a guy dressed up in a lion’s suit. There is no reason for OldPa to be coaching now. He bullied the weak Penn State president into keeping him on the job in 2004. No one, including “legends” as ordained by the media class, have a right to hang on beyond time. It was time for Paterno to hang it up ten years ago. We can only pray this is his last year. Pray daily.

  5. John Irons says:

    Pac-10 bound Utah Utes.

  6. Mike says:

    Happy Hour Valley is now defunct. That blogger moved to Linebacker-U.com, which, by the way, is not a message board. Just figured I’d let you know that.

  7. TrumanHugh says:

    According to Google…Mississippi and Louisiana are the two states with the highest birthrates (Mississippi leads the way in teen births, btw) over the last three years…

    Since Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Southern Miss are already listed, I’m going with LSU for #17…

  8. foster walrus says:

    Miss. and La. had the highest spikes in birth rates, but Utah still is the highest in total.

  9. John Irons says:

    Yelling ‘Go Uteruses!’ was too tedious so we changed it to Utes.

    Paul: Nice.

  10. [...] Five and Five: No. 18, Penn State By PAUL MYERBERG Paul Myerberg is getting you ready for the upcoming college football season over at Pre-Snap Read. The Quad will also feature a daily look at each of Paul’s top 50 teams in the country heading into the season opener. Today’s team, No. 18, is Penn State. You can find a larger Penn State preview here. [...]

  11. Phil says:

    Maybe I’m too young to remember the ’86 team but the ’94 squad put up SIXTY THREE POINTS on the Buckeyes! 63!!!! That was/is unheard of against OSU which consistently has some of the country’s top D’s.

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