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Penn State has key positions to fill
The constant discussion and speculation about what will happen at the end of the Joe Paterno era appears to have lost a little steam and energy, considering it’s been going on for well over a decade. And while that will always be part of the Penn State conversation until the torch officially gets passed, things keep on humming along with three 11-win seasons in the last five and 51 wins since the 4-7 fiasco of 2004.
Evan Royster needs just 482 yards away from being Penn State’s all-time leading rusherJoe Robbins
How impressive has the resurgence been as Paterno walks up the 18th fairway of his career? Of the 13 losses in the last five years, eight came against teams that finished with double-digit wins, three more came against teams that finished with nine victories, and the other two losses came in nail-biters. One was a 35-31 loss at Michigan State at the end of the 2007 regular season, and the other was the last-second Henne-to-Manningham loss to Michigan (for Penn State’s only defeat of the year) in 2005. However, while Penn State hasn’t given away any easy games, the win totals are a bit misleading.
Of the 51 victories in the last five years, only 16 have come against BCS teams that finished with winning records, and five of those came in 2005. Just three of the wins (Wisconsin and Ohio State in 2005 and Ohio State in 2008) came against elite teams that finished with double-digit win totals. Essentially, Penn State has beaten the teams it was supposed to and lost to almost all of the great teams on the slate. Considering this year’s slate and the rebuilding job needing to be done at some spots, the trend will force a look at the final 2010 record with a more critical eye.
Yes, there’s a trip to Alabama to deal with in college football’s best non-conference game of the year, but the rest of the pre-Big Ten slate (Youngstown State, Kent State, and Temple) is nice and breezy. With no Wisconsin to face and road games at Iowa and Ohio State, if everything goes to form, Penn State will beat all the average to mediocre teams on the slate, will play tough and lose to the Tide, Buckeyes, and Hawkeyes on the road, and will get to go to yet another New Year’s Day bowl where it gets to continue to hold up its end of the bargain in the Big Ten vs. SEC debate. But will that mean the team is really that good? After all, the only other true road game besides the big three battles is at Minnesota.
The Penn State football factory will continue to reload in key spots, but to beat one of the big boys on the schedule, several soft spots need to be secured. The quarterback play has to be better than it was under Daryll Clark, who earned a reputation for not being able to come through in the biggest of games, but it’s asking a lot for Kevin Newsome to be the same sort of steady leader. It’s asking even more to replace the linebacking trio of Navarro Bowman, Sean Lee, and Josh Hull, and even for Linebacker U. there’s going to be a drop off. The special teams were miserable and had to phone-a-friend to find a walk-on punter, the backup safeties are questionable, and the offensive line has to rebound after an underwhelming 2009.
And Penn State will still probably finish with at least ten wins.
Yeah, there’s reloading to be done, but the defensive line has the potential to be among the best in a decade, the receiving corps is fast and experienced, and the running backs are exceptionally talented and deep.
The starting foursome in the secondary should be among the best in the Big Ten, the O-line should be better than last year as long as everyone stays healthy, and Newsome, in time, should be a more dynamic and better all-around quarterback than Clark.
Paterno keeps on rolling and Penn State football keeps on producing winning seasons. While neither might be among the elite of the elite this year, once again, they’re still good enough to beat just about everyone else. No matter how they do it, double-digit win seasons are never anything to dismiss.
What to watch for on offense: Shuffling on the line. While injuries had something to do with it, the line simply didn’t play well last year. The pass protection was fine, but the ground game never found its groove as the combination up front seemed to change each week. Not comfortable to keep the status quo, the coaching staff did some moving around this offseason, most notably taking all-star center Stefan Wisniewski and moving him to guard. This is a veteran, athletic line that has the potential to be great, but it needs to be settled.
What to watch for on defense: Michael Mauti. One of the team’s most talented linebackers going into last season, the sophomore tore his ACL and was out before the year began. With the loss of all the top linebackers from last year, the speedy return of Mauti is a must to upgrade the talent level. If he’s fine, he has a shot to start somewhere on the outside, even though he’d be better in the middle. If he’s not 100 percent or is two steps below his pre-injury skill, there could be problems. Nathan Stupar is another great Penn State linebacker ready to shine, but there isn’t a Navorro Bowman in the new group.
The team will be far better if … the special teams aren’t at a next level of suck again. Kicker Collin Wagner came up with a fine year, but he’s not an elite talent … and he was the bright spot. The punt coverage team was 117th in the nation, allowing 15.4 yards per try, the punting game was 114th in the country, the kickoff return team was 107th, and the punt return game was 106th. The poor special teams play didn’t prove costly with only one game, the Capital One Bowl win over LSU, decided by fewer than 11 points, but it’s asking a lot to come up with wins at Alabama, Iowa and/or Ohio State without being great in all three phases.
The schedule: Last year was essentially a two-game schedule facing Iowa and Ohio State in key home games, and Penn State lost them both. It's a bit of a stretch to call this a three-game slate, but it's close. The Nittany Lions should be able to put on their helmets and walk through wins over Youngstown State, Kent State, Temple, Illinois, at Minnesota, and against Indiana (to be played in Landover, Maryland), and they'll have to focus on difficult games against Michigan, Northwestern and Michigan State. However, those three games are at home and Penn State will be favored in all of them. At Alabama, at Iowa, and at Ohio State. That's the schedule. There's no Wisconsin to deal with (Purdue is also missing) and the big games are spread out nicely, but those big three road tests against teams that won their BCS games are brutal. On the plus side, a win over the Crimson Tide would set the tone for the rest of the season and launch JoePa's club onto the national title short list.
Best offensive player: Senior RB Evan Royster. Top lineman Stefen Wisniewski could be in this discussion, but Royster, if he stays healthy, will be the heart and soul of the offense with the talent and potential to blow up in his final year. Needing just 482 yards away from being Penn State’s all-time leading rusher, and with a new quarterback being worked into the fold, he’ll be counted on to play like the top 15 NFL draft prospect many believe he is.
Best defensive player: Junior DE Jack Crawford. Overshadowed by DT Jared Odrick and LB Navorro Bowman, Crawford didn’t get quite the attention he should’ve considering he was among the Big Ten’s best pass rushers. With good size, quickness, and experience, and with a supporting cast up front with enough talent to take the heat off, he should blow up and be in the hunt for All-America honors.
Key player to a successful season: Junior OT Quinn Barham. Gone is steady left tackle Dennis Landolt, and now the line will be scrambling a bit to find a top replacement for the all-important spot. Three starters return to the line and Doug Klopacz appears ready to take over at center, but if the 6-3, 290-pound Barham isn’t great in pass protection, the line that’s looking to get over the problems of last year will have a whole new slew of issues.
The season will be a success if … Penn State finishes second in the Big Ten. The team probably isn’t going to be good enough to pull off the upset at Alabama, and it’s asking for too much to beat both Ohio State and Iowa on the road, but it should beat everyone else on the slate and it would be a major plus to pull off a split between the Buckeyes and Hawkeyes.
Key game: Oct. 2 at Iowa. In an odd quirk, the home team has lost the last three games in the Penn State-Ohio State game, and this year’s battle is at Columbus. That game will take on a Big Ten Championship feel if the Nittany Lions can finally break the hex over the Hawkeyes after losing seven of the last eight meetings. Iowa ruined the Penn State national title dream in 2008 with a last second field goal in Iowa City and bullied its way to a rough 21-10 win in Happy Valley last year. If the Nittany Lions can win at Iowa for the first time since 1999, they’ll be deep in the hunt for Pasadena.
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