Army Opponent Preview: at Penn State

Army West Point’s fifth game of the season sees them face the one true powerhouse on the schedule as they travel to University Park, PA to take on Penn State. The Nittany Lions are looking to be a much improved team in 2015 and this will be a true test of the Black Knights both physically and mentally.

2014 Record: 7-6 (2-6 in the Big Ten – Sixth in the Big Ten East). Defeated Boston College 31-30 in the Pinstripe Bowl.

Series Record: Penn State leads 13-10-2 in a series which dates back to a first meeting in 1899 which Penn State won 6-0. The series is unique in the fact that two of the first three games were ties, including a 0-0 contest in 1900. Penn State is currently riding a nine game win streak over the Black Knights, winning every game the two have played since 1968.

Last Meeting: The last meeting between Army and Penn State resulted in a 24-3 Nittany Lions win on Homecoming Day in 1979. Penn State finished that season with an 8-4 record, while Army went 2-8-1 with wins over UConn and Stanford.

Head Coach: James Franklin is entering his second season as the Nittany Lions head coach with a 7-6 (.538) win/loss record. Franklin moved to Happy Valley after a wildly successful spell at Vanderbilt, where he made the Commodores relevant in the SEC for the first time in decades.

Spring News: Penn State reverted to tradition this spring, opting to go with no names on the back and focusing on the Penn State on the front of the jersey. This move is classic Franklin, using whatever he has around him to culture and nurture a team spirit in a bid to improve on the 7-6 record that PSU put up last year. Penn State also showed just how football crazy the region is this spring, with 68,000 fans attending the annual Blue-White spring game.

Projected Strengths: The Penn State defense was off the charts good in 2014, ranking second-best in the nation in total defense by cfbstats.com while averaging only 278.7 yards allowed per game. A big part of this was the defensive tackle position and the Nittany Lions return seniors Anthony Zettel and Deion Barnes to anchor the defensive line. With a couple of up and coming ends flanking the big guys in the middle, the first line of defense should be a strength again.

The defensive backfield should also be a strength as the Nittany Lions return three starters in the secondary. Senior cornerback Trevor Williams (photo above) has one spot locked down while sophomore Grant Haley is very promising on the other side as the one non-starter returning. The buzz though comes from strong safety Marcus Allen who, as a true freshman, started the last seven games of last season and was playing as well as any safety in the game.

Projected Weaknesses: Any discussion of Penn State this season has to begin and end with junior quarterback Christian Hackenberg. As a freshman Hackenberg lit up the Big Ten with a touchdown to interception ratio of 20-to-10 and a youthful fearlessness which propelled the Nittany Lions forward. As a sophomore however Hackenberg regressed dramatically with his ratio dropping to 12-to-15 and bad decision compounding bad decision. Hackenberg is certainly talented enough to bounce back, but the uncertainty here makes for a weakness.

While the Penn State defense should still be rock solid, the team does have to replace its defensive leader. Middle linebacker Mike Hull is now a Miami Dolphin after a senior season which saw him win the Butkus-Fitzgerald Linebacker of the Year. Hull totaled 140 tackles, easily leading the team, while averaging 10.77 tackles per game. When you take into account that the second leading tackler was Nyeem Wartman with 75, you see how replacing Hull’s production could be an issue.

Prediction: If good Christian Hackenberg shows up this fall the Nittany Lions could easily win double digit games. If bad Hackenberg shows up then Penn State will be lucky to win a half dozen. The defense will be great once again, it is something of a Franklin staple, and it is hard to see how Army moves the ball enough to really give PSU problems. Mark this one down as a loss unless Hackenberg implodes.

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