As the college football season kicks off this evening, it’s time to take a look at the other team the Pattison Avenue staff and I will be covering this season–the Penn State Nittany Lions.
After the departure of Bill O’Brien to the Houston Texans, Bucks County native James Franklin took over as the Lions’ head coach. After a 2-0 start, the team received the surprising news that they would be bowl eligible for the first time since the Sandusky scandal. Actually making a bowl game was far from a guarantee however, as the heavily sanctioned roster battled through an up-and-down season. A 4-0 start was followed by four straight losses, but the team officially became bowl eligible with a home win against Temple to improve their record to 6-4.
Highlights of the season, such as a win at Rutgers in their Big Ten conference debut and taking the eventual national champion Ohio State Buckeyes to double OT at Beaver Stadium were paired by embarrassing losses to Northwestern and Illinois. The season ultimately ended on a high note, with a 31-30 overtime victory in the Pinstripe Bowl over Boston College to bring the season’s final record to 7-6.
Junior quarterback Christian Hackenberg leads the offense at quarterback in his third year as a starter. Hackenberg’s sophomore numbers regressed severely from his freshman campaign, but a lot of blame should fall on an offensive line that was one of the worst in college football. It’s a testament to Hackenberg’s raw talent that he still projects as the top QB in the 2016 NFL Draft after a season which saw him throw 12 touchdowns and 15 interceptions.
Their is reason to believe the line should improve, with six starters returning and the addition of JUCO transfer Paris Palmer. This unit will be the key to Penn State’s offense this season. If they can open up holes for the running game and protect Hackenberg adequately, the talent is there for a significant improvement.
Penn State returns redshirt junior Akeel Lynch, their leading running back from last season. Coach Franklin has also been impressed by true freshman Saquon Barkley, who can expect to see some action this year.
The Lions have a lot of young talent at Wide Receiver. DaeSean Hamilton led the team in receiving yards as a freshman last year, and returning senior Geno Lewis was right behind him. Sophomores Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknail should also see a lot of targets.
Penn State’s 2014 defense saw incredible improvement under new defensive coordinator Bob Shoop after a terrible 2013. Last year’s team was #7 in the country in scoring defense, and the unit returns 10 starters. Senior DT Anthony Zettel returns after leading the team with eight sacks last season.
The linebacker position could be a question mark after losing last season’s leader Mike Hull, but if Penn State’s history at the position is any indication, this shouldn’t be too much of a concern. Brandon Bell, Von Walker, and Nyeem Wartman-White all return after seeing significant playing time last season.
Last year’s secondary saw the biggest improvement from an abysmal 2013. Coach Shoop moved senior Jordan Lucas from cornerback to safety this spring, a gesture of faith in sophomores Christian Campbell and Grant Haley. Senior Trevor Williams will be the only upperclassman to see significant time at the CB position.
The placekicking position could be a major weakness for the Lions after losing Sam Ficken to graduation after an excellent senior season. 259-pound freshman Joey Julius leads the depth chart, known for the size of both his leg…. and the rest of his body in general. His accuracy and performance in game situations will remain a big question mark until we get a chance to see the kicker in action.
“With Joey, I don’t know if there’s a difference whether it’s a 28-yard field goal or whether it’s a 58-yard field goal,” Franklin said. “His percentage of hitting and percentage of missing doesn’t really change a whole lot.”
Sophomore Daniel Pasquariello leads the depth chart at punter after averaging 37.3 yards per kick last season.
The similarities between Penn State and Temple are interesting. The defense should undeniably be the strength of both teams. For Penn State, it’s all going to come down to the offensive line. Without significant improvement, it could be another six-win season. If they step it up, the schedule is favorable for the team to perhaps win up to ten games and challenge the best teams in the conference. Considering the remarkable improvement on defense last season, and the returning experience on the offensive line, I’m going to put my faith in Franklin and his staff and take a comfortable over on the Vegas line of 7.5 wins. And with the restoration of scholarships and the #4 ranked 2016 recruiting class incoming next year, this team should only get even better in the future.
Penn State begins their season this Saturday against the Temple Owls. Kickoff is set for 3:30 p.m. at Lincoln Financial Field.