Hoge’s Big Ten Preview: Penn State Nittany Lions
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By Adam Hoge-
While Big Ten training camps are underway, Adam Hoge will devote an entire day to each of the 12 teams in the conference. He will include a preview on each team, plus news, notes and analysis on Twitter. He will also take your questions on Twitter and 670TheScore.com. Follow him at @AdamHogeCBS.
(CBS) The word “unprecedented” has been used a lot since the devastating child sexual abuse scandal at Penn State broke last November. That word is still very relevant as the Penn State football program enters a new era Sept. 1 when the Nittany Lions host Ohio.
No team in the history of college football has ever entered a season the way Penn State is in 2012. Not only do they have a new coach, but they have one replacing a legend who had been at the school for 61 years. As if that wasn’t a hard enough situation, they also can’t go to a bowl game for the next four seasons and any of their players can walk out without penalty at season’s end. And oh yeah, pretty much the entire nation is rooting against them.
While some might think he’s crazy (including me), one has to admire new head coach Bill O’Brien for sticking it out at Penn State given the circumstances. Most coaches likely would have had a an out-clause put in their contract if severe sanctions were handed down, but instead, O’Brien had an automatic extension kick in. O’Brien is Penn State’s only chance to bounce back from this scandal five years from now and he’s successfully keeping hope alive in Happy Valley.
Hope for 2012 might be a different story, however. O’Brien saw nine players transfer after the sanctions came down, including four starters. Here’s a look at what he has left:
1. LB Gerald Hodges (Sr.) – Hodges is a preseason All-American candidate and the overall best player on the team.
2. DT Jordan Hill (Sr.) – Hill is one of the better pass-rushing defensive tackles in the conference.
3. LB Michael Mauti (Sr.) – Missed last year with a torn ACL, but has emerged as the team leader during hard times.
4. DE Sean Stanley (Sr.) – Stanley had 4.5 sacks last season and should be even better this year.
5. LB Glenn Carson (Jr.) – Carson had a breakout year last season and is the team’s second-leading returning tackler behind Hodges.
What’s left here?
When the NCAA sanctions came down, many people thought there would be a mass exodus. That didn’t exactly happen, but despite Michael Mauti claiming there were only two or three players on the entire team thinking about leaving, nine transferred. Six of those players were on the projected two-deep. That’s significant.
When the dust settled, four projected starters — running back Silas Redd (USC), wide receiver Justin Brown (Oklahoma), tight end Kevin Haplea (Florida State) and kicker/punter Anthony Fera (Texas) — all transferred to other powerhouse football programs. Meanwhile, the defections of quarterback Rob Bolden (LSU), offensive lineman Ryan Nowicki (Illinois), linebacker Khairi Fortt (Cal), defensive tackle Jamil Pollard (Rutgers) and safety Tim Buckley (North Carolina State) severely hurt Penn State’s depth.
The good news is that the defense didn’t lose any starters and as long as there aren’t any big injuries, the unit should be pretty good. The bad news is that an offense that was already hurting for talent lost its known commodities.
How is this team going to score points?
It’s a great question. Penn State’s offense only managed 19.3 points per game last year and didn’t score more than 14 in any of its last five games last year (all of which were against ranked opponents). Senior Matt McGloin was named the starting quarterback, but his career at Penn State has been anything but glorious. Now the offense also loses it’s leading rusher (Redd), it’s leading returning receiver (Brown) and it’s second leading returning receiver (Devon Smith, who transferred before the sanctions).
To make matters worse, there are four new starters on the offensive line.
How will this team deal with the hate on the road?
Fair or not, the Penn State players are going to be subject to some pretty brutal behavior from opposing fans all season long. Hopefully the schools hosting the Lions in 2012 will make a big effort to curb some of that behavior, but it could be tough. Wisconsin successfully managed to do so last season with a week-long campaign before it hosted Penn State after the scandal broke and hopefully Virginia, Illinois, Iowa, Purdue and Nebraska will do something similar this year.
Penn State’s schedule isn’t hard, but losing all five road games might not be out of the question. The Lions get Ohio State and Wisconsin at home, but it’s hard to believe they’ll be able to score on the Buckeyes defense or keep up with Wisconsin’s offense.
Bill O’Brien manages to get his players to play at their absolute best each week and a formidable defense not only stops the opponent, but also scores on them to give the Lions some much needed points. He gets out of the non-conference season with a 3-1 record and carries some momentum into the Big Ten portion of the schedule. Penn State steals two road games the rest of the way and beats Northwestern and Indiana at home, but loses to Ohio State. O’Brien then puts all his stock into the season finale against Wisconsin and the Nittany Lions pull off a shocker to end the season 8-4.
The lack of offense is too much to overcome and Penn State fans are dealt a huge emotional blow when PSU loses the opener to a decent Ohio team Sept. 1. Players start to doubt the future of the program when they lose at Virginia the follwing week and the season starts to go in a tailspin. The defense keeps the Nittany Lions in games, but the inexperienced offense makes too many mistakes and they win just one Big Ten game to finish the season 3-9 overall.
Check out Adam’s final verdict on the Nittany Lions when his Big Ten preview concludes later this month. Up next in the series are the Purdue Boilermakers. Tweet your questions to Adam at @AdamHogeCBS.
Adam is the Sports Editor for CBSChicago.com and specializes in coverage of the Bears, White Sox and college sports. He was born and raised in Lincoln Park and attended St. Ignatius College Prep before going off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he earned a Journalism degree. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHogeCBS and read more of his columns here.