Penn State, despite NCAA sanctions, should still be solid in 2013

This is the 12th in a 12-week Friday series looking at the Wisconsin football team’s 2013 opponents.

It turns out a postseason ban and scholarship reductions didn’t cripple Penn State football as badly as some people thought. At least, not on the field last season. With the right coaching and player development, the Nittany Lions were able to produce a memorable 8-4 campaign that included a 24-21 overtime victory against Wisconsin in the season finale.

Penn State loses eight starters off last year’s team, including quarterback Matt McGloin, who turned into arguably the best quarterback in the Big Ten. Replacing his production is among the chief questions for the Nittany Lions as the season approaches.

No, the Nittany Lions can’t play in a bowl game for the next three seasons because of NCAA sanctions, but that doesn’t mean they can’t derail the hopes of other teams along the way. Penn State’s offense, which averaged 29.1 points per game last season, could be even better in 2013 given the weapons on the field. They just need to find a quarterback to provide them some consistency.

For the third straight year, this will mark the last game of the regular-season for both Penn State and Wisconsin. If the Badgers play as well as many fans hope in 2013, the season-finale could provide some serious drama in determining their postseason fate.

Personnel: As is the case with Wisconsin’s football program, Penn State finds itself in the midst of a quarterback competition two weeks before the season starts. Unlike the Badgers’ situation, neither Penn State quarterback has thrown a pass in a game for the Nittany Lions.

True freshman Christian Hackenberg and junior-college transfer Tyler Ferguson will try to recapture the magic McGloin created one season earlier, but that won’t be easy. McGloin threw for 3,266 yards with 24 touchdowns and five interceptions last season. Penn State ranked second in passing offense in the Big Ten behind only Indiana’s pass-happy scheme. McGloin, meanwhile, averaged more passing yards per game (272.2) than any quarterback in the league. Indiana’s Cameron Coffman was second (248.5 yards per game), and no other Big Ten quarterback averaged more than 206 yards passing per game.

Hackenberg is a highly touted high school phenom from Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia. Ferguson was a standout at College of the Sequoias in Visalia, Calif., last season. He broke the school record with 2,614 passing yards and threw for 22 touchdowns in 10 games.

“They’ve both had a lot of good moments,” O’Brien told reporters this week. “They’ve both made their fair share of mistakes, but it’s very even now. So we’ll let that play out for a few days.”

While the quarterback race is unsettled, the rest of Penn State’s offense should be solid. Running back Zach Zwinak returns after rushing for 1,000 yards and six touchdowns. Bill Belton returns as well (263 yards, three touchdowns) and his production could increase with the departure of Michael Zordich. Throw in the expected brilliance of freshman Akeel Lynch, and the Nittany Lions’ backfield will be among the most formidable in the Big Ten.

Penn State also returns five of its top wide receivers from last season, led by Allen Robinson, last year’s Big Ten Receiver of the Year. Robinson hauled in 77 catches for 1,013 yards and 11 touchdowns. The Nittany Lions have a stable of tight ends that rivals Wisconsin: Kyle Carter (36 catches, 453 yards), Matt Lehman (24 catches, 296 yards) and Jesse James (15 catches, 276 yards).

Defensively, Penn State loses its top two tacklers (linebackers Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti), and those players will be difficult to replace. Outside linebacker Mike Hull (58 tackles, four sacks) and Glenn Carson (85 tackles) will have to pick up the slack.

Up front, DaQuan Jones (22 tackles) and Kyle Baublitz will fill the interior. But the Nittany Lions could be especially tough at defensive ends with C.J. Olaniyan and last year’s Big Ten Freshman of the Year Deion Barnes (26 tackles, six sacks) in the mix.

Penn State also returns senior safeties Stephen Obeng-Agyapong (41 tackles) and Malcolm Willis (45 tackles), as well as cornerback Adrian Amos (44 tackles), so there is experience all around for the Nittany Lions.

Fun fact No. 1: Bill O’Brien is known in football circles as an offensive mastermind. In his final NFL season with the New England Patriots in 2011, the team ranked third in the league in points per game (32.0). But O’Brien endured his share of struggles before coming to New England. He served as Duke’s offensive coordinator in 2005 and 2006. In his first season, the Blue Devils ranked 110th out of 117 FBS teams in scoring offense (16.1). In his second season, they ranked 112th out of 119 teams (14.9 points).

Fun fact No. 2: Last season ended a six-game stretch in which at least one team was ranked in the top 25 when Wisconsin and Penn State faced each other. In the teams’ 16 matchups all-time, at least one team has been ranked 12 times.

Bye bye Badgers: When the Legends and Leaders divisions were announced, Wisconsin and Penn State seemed like a natural fit as teams that should develop a longstanding rivalry. As a result, both programs were pitted against each other in the final game of the regular season from 2011-2013. But now the divisions are changing to East and West, and the rivalry that was developing is all but gone. The teams aren’t on each others’ regular-season schedule for at least the next three seasons.

Prediction: Wisconsin 20, Penn State 14

Follow Jesse Temple on Twitter