A lot has changed since last season's meeting. Penn State is the team with the experience this time around, while the Irish will be playing a lot of young kids.
A 6 p.m. kickoff at Beaver Stadium with a fired-up crowd of 108,000 strong, that put in a good 10 hours of tailgating doesn't bode well for the Irish and whoever their young starting quarterback is. One thing is for sure, Irish fans and head coach Charlie Weis will have a good idea about the mettle of their young team after this game.
"I think the Ohio State game a couple years ago was absolutely nuts, and the Michigan game last year the crowd was amped," Mark Brennan, the publisher of FightOnState.com said. He has covered Penn State football for over 20 years. "With there being a lot of Notre Dame fans in Pennsylvania, more than Michigan and Ohio State put together, the ticket demand has been ridiculous. I think we will see an absolutely crazy crowd."
Sound familiar? Last year when the fourth-ranked Irish beat No. 19 Penn State, it was the highest-requested ticket in Notre Dame history.
The Nittany Lions finished 9-4 last season, capping the campaign with an impressive 20-10 Outback Bowl victory over Tennessee on New Years Day. Joe Paterno is heading into his 42nd season at the helm, and the Hall of Famer has more answers than question marks regarding his team in the 2007 campaign.
After opening the season at home against Georgia Tech, this will be the second-of-three very tough games to start the year for Notre Dame.
***OFFENSE: In its four losses last season to ranked-opponents, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin, Penn State scored a combined 36 points. The offense really fizzled against top-notch competition, but with basically nine returning starters on this side of the ball that is full of game-breakers, and a senior quarterback in Anthony Morelli, that shouldn't be the case this year.
With four of his top-five pass catchers back from a year ago, the only loss being running back Tony Hunt, Morelli could have a 3,000-yard plus season throwing the football.
"You talk about losing (All-American linebacker Paul) Posluszny, Hunt, the guy I think is going to be the most difficult to replace is (left tackle) Levi Brown," Brennan said.
"I think Morelli has the potential to have a great year if they can keep him on his feet. In the Notre Dame game he got roughed up a little bit and that took him out of his game. That happened a couple times. I think the key is not so much the skill players but the offensive line. They have four returning starters coming back, but they have one spot they have to fill and left tackle is probably the most important spot on the field."
The Arizona Cardinals drafted the 6-foot-4, 328-pound Brown with the fifth pick in the NFL Draft. Red-shirt junior Gerald Cadogen (6-5, 313) took the first-team reps as Brown's replacement during the spring, joining center A.Q. Shipley (6-1, 293), left guard Rich Ohrnberger (6-2, 289), right guard John Shaw (6-4, 303) and right tackle Dennis Landolt (6-4, 294) as the new face on the line.
"He looked fine," Brennan said of Cadogen. "He didn't necessarily standout, it wasn't eye-popping stuff, but he seemed to get the job done."
Brown's shoes are certainly huge to fill.
Shaw is making the move from right tackle to guard this season. Landolt saw a lot of action last season when Brown was hurt. Another guy who took first-team reps at guard during the summer but will enter the fall No. 2 is Lou Elides (6-4, 305).
The 6-foot-4, 214-pound Morelli, really started to come into his own at the end of last season, rallying the team for three straight wins. He ended his first season as a starter completing a pedestrian 54 percent of his passes for 2,424 yards and 11 touchdowns to just eight interceptions. With this being Morelli's final year of eligibility, the former blue-chip recruit has really made an effort to go out with a bang.
"There has been a knock on him that he is not the smartest quarterback out there," Brennan stated. "Prior to the bowl game, he really opened up and criticized his high school coach about spreading that rumor about him. It seemed like from there he had that weight off him and he played better in the bowl game. He didn't have gigantic numbers, but he made better decisions under pressure and he just played a solid all-around game.
In the spring, the sense you got, he did seem he is embracing the role of leader," Brennan continued. "He tried to do that last year, but I think it's difficult to emerge as a leader until you accomplished something. He has some experience and I think the other players look up to him. He is the one organizing the 7-on-7s and he is a senior, it's his last year, and there is a lot to get done in this final season."
Morelli won't be short on his favorite receiving targets. Juniors Deon Butler (48 rec, 637 yards, 2 TDs), Jordan Norwood (45 rec., 472 yards, 2 TDs) and the dangerous Derrick Williams (40 rec., 440 yards, 1 TD) are back at receiver, and rising sophomore Andrew Quarless (21 rec., 288 yards, 2 TDs) returns to the tight end post he took over the second half of his first college season.
The problem with the three receivers is that none are over 6-feet tall, and it showed last year. Penn State didn't get a touchdown from any receiver in conference play until the finale against Michigan State.
"As talented as Williams, Butler and Norwood are, they just aren't the biggest guys and you pay a price for that in the red zone," Brennan said. "A guy that everyone should keep an eye on is sophomore Chris Bell (6-2, 210). He is a sophomore that had some issues adjusting to the program as a true freshman, but has come around and the other receivers are raving about him. He is the best combination of size and athleticism of the bunch and he had an incredible spring. He had a 70-yard touchdown catch in the spring game."
The 6-foot-5 Quarless is also a guy that can be utilized as a receiver in the red zone, and is one of just a few tight ends to ever start as a true freshman for Paterno. Another player to watch Brennan said is former quarterback Brett Brackett. The 6-foot-6 sophomore was asked to emulate Jeff Samardzija last year on the foreign team because nobody else on the roster had his size, and the coaches liked him so much they kept him at the position.
Leading rusher Hunt (1,386 yards rushing, 11 TDs) has moved on to the NFL, and Paterno and company are banking on seldom-used fifth-year senior Austin Scott to carry the load. The Nittany Lions are very thin at running back. Scat-back Rodney Kinlaw is basically all Penn State has after Scott, after failing to recruit a legit running back the past few years.
"Austin Scott came into Penn State in the same recruiting class as Tony Hunt," Brennan said. "He was ranked higher and posted ridiculous numbers at Parkland High School, leading his team to the state title against very good competition.
"Early in his career, I don't think he had his head on straight," Brennan contined about the 6-foot, 222-pound Scott. "He'll admit that. Then he had the injury bug, and has been a role player since he has been here. He definitely has the physical ability to do it. The thing that has been holding him back is Austin Scott. If he has his head on straight, he has the ability to be a featured back in the Big Ten conference."
Also expect to see the speedy Williams, who has trimmed down to 187 pounds line up in the backfield for a few gadget plays to help with the short-staffed backfield.
***Defense: Clearly the strength of the team last season, the Nittany Lions ranked 15th nationally in total defense (284 yards per game) and ninth in scoring defense (14 points per game). Posluszny, arguably the best linebacker to play at Linebacker U is gone, and so is hybrid-player Tim Shaw and defensive end Jay Alford. However, even without Posluszny, this could be the most talented back seven Penn State has had under Paterno.Dan Connor, who's 113 tackles were just three behind Posluszny's team-high 116 a year ago, makes the move from outside linebacker to Posluszny's former inside spot. He will be one of the frontrunners for the Butkus Award given to the nation's top linebacker. Sean Lee returns to his outside linebacker post, and his 90 tackles was good for third on the team last year. In the spring it appeared that Navarro Bowman grabbed the lead at the outside linebacker over Tyrell Sales.
According to Brennan, Penn State's secondary is shaping up to be perhaps the best in America. All-American candidate Justin King effectively blanketed receivers all season, and his low numbers show that. The 5-11 cornerback had just 30 tackles and one interception, but the ball was hardly in his area, and he played against some very talented receivers.
"I'm not sure why he didn't get more pub last year," Brennan said. "If you look at what he did against Tennessee's Robert Meachem and Ohio State's Ted Ginn, they had season low numbers matching up with Justin one-on-one."
A.J. Wallace, who will also team up with Williams in the return game, takes over the other cornerback spot once occupied by Tony Davis after he was moved to safety.
"Wallace is as fast and taller than Justin," Brennan said. "In terms of athleticism, these are probably the best two corners Penn State has ever had."
All-Big Ten safety Anthony Scirrotto will most likely play this season opposite Davis according to Brennan, after he and several teammates were involved in a fight at a school party. The players were disciplined during the summer by either suspension or expulsion, and likely won't face anymore severe penalties. That incident is what has mainly led to Paterno making his players clean up the Beaver Stadium stands following home games.
Scirrotto, who dropped a pair of interceptions against the Irish last season, would've been a huge loss. He had 58 tackles and a team-high six interceptions last season, and will certainly be a pest to the Notre Dame offense again.
On the defensive line, the Nittany Lions have to replace Alford, Shaw and Ed Johnson. The three combined for 99 tackles, 31 tackles for loss and 20 sacks.
"They've done an unbelievable job recruiting along the defensive line," Brennan said. "It's going to be a steep learning curve for the new guys with two of the first four games against Notre Dame and Michigan. They have the talent there, it's just about these guys getting a little bit of experience."
Defensive end Josh Gaines (25 tackles, 2 sacks) is the lone returning starter in the trenches. Sophomore Maurice Evans (12 tackles, 3.5 TFL) will likely be the other end. At the two defensive tackle positions, a lot of players are in the mix. Red-shirt freshman Abe Koroma (6-3, 312), sophomore Phillip Taylor (6-4, 337), sophomore Jared Odrick (6-5, 291) and red-shirt freshman Ollie Ogbu (6-1, 293) are all options at this point.
The one thing defensive coordinator Tom Bradley had last year, that he is lacking this year is the hybrid player that Shaw was. At any time, the Nittany Lions could go from a 4-3 formation to a 3-4 without changing personnel. The closest thing Penn State has to that this year is reserve Aaron Maybin.
***Special Teams: Williams is potentially one of the most dangerous return men in the country, and Wallace was close to busting a few kickoffs for scores last year. Williams will also handle the punt return duties, where he was 12th in the country with an average return of 12 yards, and he did score once. Kinlaw could also see time as a kick returner.
Kevin Kelly is back for his third year as the team's kicker. He played through a stress fracture in the pelvic area and was never consistent last season. He was 22-of-34 on field goal tries, and Kelly said that he was fine during the spring.
Four-year starter Jeremy Kapinos did a fine job punting for Penn State in his career. Last season he averaged 41 yards per kick, but more importantly, teams only averaged 4.5 yards per return. Walk-on Jeremy Boone and incoming scholarship freshman Ryan Breen will compete for the job.
***Overall: "This is a real lynchpin game for Penn State," Brennan said. "If they don't win this game, all those things I was talking about before, the conference championship, a BCS bowl, all that goes down the drain if they lose this game. They can't have any real serious aspirations about anything if they lose. I think it would kill the confidence and sets a negative tone for the season."
Don't think for a minute, that the raucous crowd won't know that either.