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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. 20: Penn State

The dearly — and often not-so-dearly — departed: Lou Tepper, Barry Alvarez, Ron Turner, Joe Tiller, Bill Mallory, Cam Cameron, Jim Colletto, Gerry DiNardo, Bill Lynch, John Cooper, Hayden Fry, Gary Moeller, Gary Barnett, Lloyd Carr, George Perles, Nick Saban, Jim Wacker, Glen Mason, Bobby Williams, John L. Smith, Tim Brewster, Rich Rodriguez and Jim Tressel. The new: Jerry Kill, Kevin Wilson, Brady Hoke, Luke Fickell and Nebraska. The one constant: Joe Paterno. And that’s just since 1993, when Penn State dropped its Independent stance for a place in the Big Ten. Times change, as the Big Ten goes to 12, Ohio State drops a bombshell, Michigan returns to its roots and Nebraska joins the party, but one thing remains the same, just a bit older. For the 46th year, Paterno will lead Penn State onto the field.

Conference
Big Ten, Leaders

Location
University Park, Pa.

Nickname
Nittany Lions

Returning starters
15 (7 offense, 8 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 18

2010 record
(7-6, 4-4)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 41

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
    Indiana St.
  • Sept. 10
    Alabama
  • Sept. 17
    at Temple
  • Sept. 24
    Eastern Michigan
  • Oct. 1
    at Indiana
  • Oct. 8
    Iowa
  • Oct. 15
    Purdue
  • Oct. 22
    at Northwestern
  • Oct. 29
    Illinois
  • Nov. 12
    Nebraska
  • Nov. 19
    at Ohio St.
  • Nov. 26
    at Wisconsin

Last year’s prediction

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. 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.

2010 recap

In a nutshell Not vintage Penn State football. Lackluster offensively: the Nittany Lions finished ninth in the Big Ten in total offense, sixth in passing, ninth in rushing and ninth in scoring. Still good, but less intimidating defensively: fifth in the Big Ten in scoring at 23.7 points per game, but that total was nearly double the 2009 mark that paced the conference and was good for third nationally. It was a simple step back across the board for Penn State, though perhaps we should have seen this coming. Quarterback was an issue in August and continued to cause problems throughout the year. The offensive line was a work in progress, thanks to a largely inexperienced starting quintet and little proven depth on the two-deep. The Nittany Lions faced daunting holes in the middle of the defensive line and at linebacker, which is to blame for the sizable decline in production against the run. In hindsight, the 7-6 finish wasn’t all that surprising. The hope is that last year’s struggles pay dividends in 2011.

High point Four wins over five weeks in Big Ten play. The best? A 35-21 home win over Northwestern, followed by a 41-31 win over Michigan. I know that neither the Wildcats nor the Wolverines played much defense, but the Penn State offense had its two finest showing on the year. Can you name which defeated opponent ended the 2011 season with the most wins? That’s right, Temple.

Low point You can excuse a loss at Alabama, even if the Crimson Tide had their way offensively. But there was nothing pretty about any of Penn State’s six losses. A 26-22 loss at home to Michigan State looks better on paper thanks to 19 fourth quarter points from the Nittany Lions. A 37-24 bowl loss to Florida loss worse, on the other hand, thanks to late pick-six for the Gators. Ohio State, Illinois and Iowa combined to beat P.S.U. by 65 points.

Tidbit One of my all-time favorite tidbits. Paterno’s coaching staff brings 162 combined years of experience at Penn State into the 2011 season. The least-tenured members of the P.S.U. staff are safeties coach Kermit Buggs and offensive coordinator Galen Hall, who brings eight years of experience to the table. Offensive line coach Dick Anderson has 34 years tenure; defensive coordinator Tom Bradley 33 years; defensive line coach Larry Johnson 16 years; offensive line assistant and tight ends coach Bill Kenney 24 years; wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator Mike McQueary 11 years; quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno 17 years; and linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden 11 years. I think these guys know what they’re doing.

Tidbit (non-conference edition) Penn State has gone 64-14 in non-conference play since joining the Big Ten in 1993, including wins in 18 of its last 21 non-conference games. The Nittany Lions didn’t lose one game outside of Big Ten action over the program’s first four years in the league, from 1993-96, and didn’t begin dropping non-conference games in earnest until 2000. The 14 losses: Florida in 1997; U.S.C., Toledo and Pittsburgh in 2000; Miami (Fla.) and Virginia in 2001; Auburn in 2002; Boston College and Nebraska in 2003; Boston College in 2004; Notre Dame in 2006; U.S.C. in 2008; and Alabama and Florida last fall.

Former players in the N.F.L.

36 DT Anthony Adams (Chicago), DT Jay Alford (Seattle), LB Navorro Bowman (San Francisco), TE Brett Brackett (Miami), OT Levi Brown (Arizona), WR Deon Butler (Seattle), LB Chris Colasanti (Indianapolis), LB Dan Connor (Carolina), OT Lou Eliades (Oakland), TE John Gilmore (Pittsburgh), K Robbie Gould (Chicago), LB Tamba Hali (Kansas City), LB Josh Hull (St. Louis), P Jeremy Kapinos (Pittsburgh), CB Justin King (St. Louis), OG Dennis Landolt (New York Jets), LB Sean Lee (Dallas), LB Aaron Maybin (Buffalo), OT Kareem McKenzie (New York Giants), WR Jordan Norwood (Cleveland), DE Jared Odrick (Miami), DT Ollie Ogbu (Indianapolis), OG Rich Ohrnberger (New England), DT Scott Paxson (Cleveland), LB Paul Posluszny (Jacksonville), TE Andrew Quarless (Green Bay), RB Michael Robinson (Seattle), RB Evan Royster (Washington), S Bryan Scott (Buffalo), LB Tim Shaw (Tennessee), C A.Q. Shipley (Philadelphia), TE Mickey Shuler (Miami), LB Cameron Wake (Miami), WR Derrick Williams (Detroit), C Stefan Wisniewski (Oakland).

Arbitrary top five list

Penn State linebackers in the N.F.L.
1. Jack Ham (1971-82).
2. Dave Robinson (1963-74).
3. Matt Millen (1980-91).
4. Chuck Drazenovich (1950-59).
5. Shane Conlan (1987-95).

Coaching

Joe Paterno (Brown ‘50), 401-139-3 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 46th 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 nearly 880 head coaching changes on the F.B.S. level; since the Nittany Lions entered the Big Ten in 1993, there have been 36 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 recently bounced back in a big way after going 26-33 from 2000-4. The Nittany Lions have three 11-win seasons over the past six years, sandwiching an 11-1 finish in 2005 and the 11-2 record in 2008 and 2009 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. posted from 2006-9 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. After sliding down to 7-6 last fall, the Nittany Lions will again bounce back in 2011.

Players to watch

Here we go again. At least this year’s competition at quarterback is down to two applicants, thanks to Kevin Newsome’s indicated desire to leave the program at the earliest opportunity. His departure robs Penn State of depth, both today and in the future, but in reality, this job was going to come down to sophomore Rob Bolden and junior Matt McGloin — new year, same story. But it was nearly worse: Bolden asked for a release from his scholarship following last winter’s bowl loss, which would have severely damaged Penn State’s options under center. Bolden reconsidered; good move for the sophomore, great news for the program.

So we stand today in the same place where we stood last August, with Bolden the favorite to take on the starting job but McGloin, once again, not… going… anywhere. What can you take away from each quarterback’s performance last fall? Bolden didn’t fare all that poorly, all things considered. Remember that he was a true freshman starter, Penn State’s first at the position since 1992, and broke into major college football on the road, at Alabama, against a Nick Saban-led defense — and didn’t play too well, as you’d expect. But Bolden acquitted himself rather well altogether as the starter, doing a nice job against two solid pass defenses in Temple and Iowa and putting a very nice game together against Minnesota before a concussion ended his afternoon; to that point, Bolden had hit on 11 of 13 attempts against the Golden Gophers.

His injury gave McGloin his chance, and the former walk-on did enough, it seemed, to keep Bolden on the bench even when he recovered from his injury — hence Bolden’s near-transfer. So we’re nearly back to square one, right where we started this thing 12 months ago. How are things going to play out? I’d be very surprised if Bolden doesn’t start against Indiana State to open the year. But he needs to do a few things: one, simply improve, playing with more consistency; two, he needs to grow physically to take the hits at the position; and three, he needs to get a roster that might have thought he was gone to get back in his corner. McGloin’s there if he falters, so Bolden needs to deliver.

Sophomore Silas Redd takes over at running back after apprenticing behind the departed Evan Royster a season ago. Redd was one member of Penn State’s 2010 recruiting class who delivered on his potential, rushing for 437 yards on a team-best 5.7 yards per carry while taking touches away from Stephfon Green (188 yards), who’s also back in the fold. Can this pair play off each other? It depends on Redd’s ability to earn tough yards between the tackles: he has the size, and certainly the talent, to do so effectively. But Green’s role might diminish even further with the healthy return of junior Brandon Beachum, who missed last season with an A.C.L. tear. Beachum could do much of the dirty, short-yardage, red zone work that went to junior fullback Michael Zordich in 2010. Zordich will see some touches, as may his backup, Joe Suhey — but no too many touches, please. Keep an eye on Redd, who could have a big year in his first season as Penn State’s feature back.

For the second straight year, Penn State is loaded at receiver. Two contributors must be replaced in Brett Brackett and Graham Zug, but the Nittany Lions have enough returning and rising talent to more than offset those losses. This is a group paced by its top threesome: senior Derek Moye (team-best 53 receptions for 885 yards and 8 scores) and juniors Justin Brown (33 for 452) and Devon Smith (27 for 363). Moye’s very, very good; Smith is very fast; and Brown might have the most promise of them all. There won’t be any leapfrogging this trio on the depth chart, but P.S.U. could go six or seven deep at receiver. This depends on the development of sophomores Shawney Kersey and Brandon Moseby-Felder, who sit behind Brown and Moye, respectively, on the depth chart. Another handful in the mix for playing time: sophomores Christian Kuntz and Curtis Drake and true freshman Bill Belton, who has been a nice surprise.

Are you ready for a defensive revival? Inexperience and injuries derailed Penn State’s chances at replicating 2009’s results last fall, but with both factors firmly in the rear view mirror look for a vastly improved effort from this defense. All that’s missing is a pass rush, which disappeared for extended periods a season ago. Again, injuries played a sizable role in the decline across the board, most notably up front. So if all goes according to plan — no injuries, of course — the Nittany Lions should challenge Nebraska for the best defense in the new-look Big Ten. Healthy, tested, deep and talented, this group looks loaded for bear.

Step one: get to the quarterback. More than just 17 times, at least, which marked a 20-sack decline from 2009. Remember that note about injuries? The Nittany Lions already suffered one troubling blow when starting end Pete Massaro (37 tackles, 3.5 sacks) suffered a season-ending knee injury during the spring. His setback makes it all the more vital that senior Jack Crawford, one of several defenders lost to injury last fall, recover his earlier form. Normally among the more explosive ends in the Big Ten, Crawford’s early-season ankle ailment slowed him for the heart of conference play. Don’t underestimate the motivation of one’s final college season: Crawford, now healthy, will be a major factor behind Penn State’s resurgence.

The Nittany Lions also get back senior Eric Latimore, a nearly tackle-size end who began last year in the starting lineup but missed much of the season with a broken wrist. When in the lineup, Latimore lends this front a boost of strength against the run. For now, Latimore will team with junior Sean Stanley opposite of Crawford. One big, one lean: Latimore holds up against the run while Stanley has the speed off the edge to get to the quarterback. There’s more size inside, with a quarter of interior linemen tipping the scale at more than 310 pounds, depending on lunch. Senior Devon Sill (39 tackles, 10 for loss, 4 sacks) is the anchor, not to mention an all-Big Ten selection. P.S.U. will look for junior Jordan Hill (24 tackles, 2 for loss) and sophomore DaQuan Jones to get it done alongside Sill.

The heart and soul of this defense is junior middle linebacker Michael Mauti. For evidence of this claim, simply pop in tape of the one meaningful game Mauti (67 tackles, 5.5 for loss) missed due to injury, Illinois, and watch the results. Here’s some good news for Penn State: now two years removed from a tough knee injury, Mauti should be back at 100 percent capacity in 2011. Tough and strong with a nose for the football, Mauti fits nicely into the program’s long, long, long line of standouts at linebacker. Perhaps you’ve heard about Penn State’s history at the position? Mauti will be flanked at outside linebacker by one returning starter, senior Nate Stupar (73 tackles, 6.5 for loss), with converted defensive back Gerald Hodges the favorite to join Stupar and Mauti in the starting lineup. You’ll also see a lot of sophomores Khairi Fortt and Glenn Carson. One year after breaking in three new starters, the Nittany Lions are very solid at linebacker.

Imagine how good this secondary could be if the defensive line gets pressure in the backfield? This group delivered last fall despite the paltry pass rush, even if we discount those results somewhat thanks to Penn State’s frequent inability to stop the run effectively — in short, opponents ran more and passed less, boosting the secondary’s numbers a bit. Still, the pass defense could easily rank among the nation’s best if the pass rush improves, as expected. What about forcing a few more turnovers? Don’t bet on it. Penn State’s defense plays like North Carolina’s old Four Corners offense: slow it down, limit damage, take advantage when given the opportunity but don’t ever, ever do anything to hurt yourself.

Nick Sukay’s pectoral injury, suffered against Illinois, robbed Penn State of a major contributor at free safety. He’s back in the fold, which should push sophomore Malcolm Willis (54 tackles, 1 interception) into a reserve role — in name only, perhaps, as Willis will see plenty of time as the third safety. Joining that pair is senior strong safety Drew Astorino (70 tackles), an honorable mention all-Big Ten pick in 2010. As was senior D’Anton Lynn (75 tackles, 3 interceptions), the team’s top cornerback. Built like a safety, Lynn’s ability to come up and play the run effectively makes him an invaluable asset to this secondary. Lynn also did a better job forcing turnovers last fall.

He’ll again team with junior Stephon Morris (39 tackles) at cornerback, though senior Chaz Powell is another option. Powell’s a bit of a cautionary tale: gifted athletically, he’s bounced around on both sides of the ball but yet to find a true home. He may continue to play some receiver in 2011, but Penn State has enough depth to keep Powell at cornerback. He’ll continue to return kicks for the Nittany Lions; he averaged 23.9 yards per return last fall, returning one for a score. In total, the back seven of this defense is superb. I don’t want to harp on it, but if P.S.U. recovers its pass rush I think this will be one of the best defenses in the country.

Position battle(s) to watch

Offensive line We know the line can protect the passer: Penn State was very good in this regard in 2010, allowing only 11 sacks despite having a pair of untested quarterbacks sharing snaps. And the Nittany Lions should suffer no decline in pass protection in 2011, not with fifth-year seniors Quinn Barham and Chima Okoli flaking the interior of the line at left and right tackle. Barham was one of the most pleasant surprises on the offensive side of the ball for P.S.U. last fall, turning a potential trouble spot in a position of strength. He’ll be ever better this season, thanks in large part to his added experience. And you can say the same for Okoli, who started eight games on the strong side thanks to injuries. But can the Penn State front do a better job opening up running lanes? That’s the big question for the line at large and the interior of the line in particular, where the Nittany Lions return senior Johnnie Troutman at left guard but replace two standouts, Stefan Wisniewski and Doug Klopacz, at right guard and center. Who steps up? Junior Matt Stankiewitch’s past starting experience, though not overwhelming, should give him the edge at center. If he falters, P.S.U. could turn to youngsters like sophomore Ty Howie and redshirt freshman Miles Dieffenbach. In a reverse scenario to the one playing out at quarterback, the older option, Stankiewitch, will need to step up his game to hold off a pair of young challengers. Penn State has two options at right guard in senior DeOn’tae Pannell and sophomore John Urschel. What lies ahead for one of two: replacing another P.S.U. great in Wisniewski. Best of luck. Pannell has shown a willingness to be nasty in the running game, which in my mind makes him the better choice; as of today, he’s riding behind Urschel on the depth chart. What Penn State needs is to get more physical on first and second down, and Pannell can help do that.

Game(s) to watch

Alabama again, but this time at home. Not that I think Penn State can take down the Crimson Tide, but playing at home, all-white… who knows. The first three-quarters of the year lands in Penn State’s favor, what with Alabama, Iowa and Illinois at home. The season comes down to the final three games: Nebraska, at Ohio State, at Wisconsin.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Could a program like Penn State ever really come in under the radar? Maybe back in 2005, when this program was at its nadir, but today? I’d side with no, but I’m extremely surprised with the lack of faith in this team’s ability to return to the Rose Bowl hunt. Perhaps all it took was a slide to seven wins to temper expectations, but consider the following: last year’s team got nothing at quarterback, did not do a good job running the football, couldn’t muster up any pass rush and suffered an almost ridiculous number of injuries. Partner those factors with a wholesale lack of experience and you get 7-6, in short. And you know what? Each of those negatives are fixable; each can be offset with time, practice and snaps, minus the injuries. Offensively, Penn State is going to land improved play under center — it’s up to Bolden, but he has the talent to take the requisite step forward. Can the offensive line be more physical? That’s a mental task, and an incalculable one at that, but the line should be better thanks to last year’s experience. Now, the defense: I think it’s going to be great. If not great then at least very good; great if the pass rush returns to 2009 form, very good if the pass rush improves only slightly. In the big picture, you have to consider Penn State a contender for the Big Ten crown. Getting Wisconsin on the road sets back those Rose Bowl hopes quite a bit, and the three-game stretch to end the year is going to prevent the Nittany Lions from getting back to 10 wins. But in my mind, this is a team with nine-win potential. That resume would include a loss to Alabama and losses in two of three against Nebraska, Ohio State and the Badgers — and means no slip-ups against Iowa, Illinois or Northwestern. The ceiling is high, like B.C.S. high, if everything falls into place. But others teams do have fewer question marks, to be fair, so placing Penn State inside the top 20 and alongside the Buckeyes for second place in the Leaders division is a logical spot.

Dream season A marquee win over Alabama sets the tone for a perfect regular season, complete with additional victories over that deadly trio to end the year.

Nightmare season For the second straight year, it’s 7-6. This time, Penn State can’t blame injuries and inexperience.

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 is a solid independent option. If you’re interested in a Penn State blog, check out Black Shoe Diaries and Nittany Whiteout.

Word Count

Through 101 teams 314,535.

Up Next

Who is No. 19? Two teams, and nearly three, gave up more yards on the ground in 2010 than tomorrow’s program has allowed over the last three years combined.

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

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Comments

  1. Patrick says:

    Has to be TCU at No. 19.

  2. Monty says:

    The Texas Christian Horned Frogs are up next.

  3. Rookierookie says:

    The Illinois loss was definitely the low point of the year. The other losses were expected, even if they weren’t pleasant; getting blown out at home by Illinois though, wasn’t something anybody saw coming, and that was the point when pretty much everybody who remained optimistic started to panic.

  4. Ken says:

    Great read. I’ve been hearing all the experts saying this team is average. But they weren’t average at all last year. They were the youngest team in the Big 10, they had an absurd amount of injuries throughout the season, a freshman QB and a walk on, and a brutal schedule When you consider those circumstances 7-6 isn’t too shabby. With everyone healthy this year they have enough coming back to compete for the Big 10 title.

  5. Paul says:

    I just want to get in on the “when Paterno retires/dies pool”… it may be a little dark, but you just can’t help wondering. He’s built a great program, hired good assistants, program has great continuity, he deserves a lot of credit for that. But that don’t stop the clock from ticking…..

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