Head coach Joe Paterno
2008 record: 11-1, 7-1 Big Ten (T-1st)
Behind a stellar offense and a gritty defense, Penn State surprised last year by tying for first place and earning a Rose Bowl berth. Some major parts return while some huge holes have formed, specifically at wideout and defensive back. The Nittany Lions are picked by many to win the Big Ten again, but it won't be an easy road.
What We Know: The offensive backfield will be the best in the Big Ten with first-team All-Big Ten quarterback Daryll Clark and tailbacks Evan Royster and Stephfon Green. The defensive line and linebacker units should be among the best in the Big Ten.
Major Questions: The wide receiver and defensive back units were absolutely decimated by graduation. Is there enough talent to keep Penn State from losing aerial battles in 2009? And will Penn State be able to replace some key offensive linemen who graduated?
Offensive Overview: Penn State had one of those rare offenses that could do it all in 2008, finishing atop the Big Ten in both points (38.9 per game) and yardage (448.8) thanks to an outstanding running game (second in the conference) and passing game (third).
Supreme skill position talent was the key. Clark showed he was more than the running quarterback people expected, completing nearly 60 percent of his passes, throwing 19 touchdowns and tossing just six interceptions after question marks about his skills dotted the preseason. For good measure, he showed his wheels still had plenty of use as he scampered for 10 touchdowns.
Royster proved he's one of the best backs in the Big Ten, earning second-team all-league honors by compiling 6.5 yards per carry, 1,236 total rushing yards and 12 touchdowns. Green was the perfect complement, a speedy back who averaged 5.5 yards per carry while using a good set of hands to average 17.9 yards per catch on his 15 grabs.
The talent carried over to wideout, where Derrick Williams, Deon Butler and Jordan Norwood – the "Big Three" – all topped 40 catches. Though it wasn't the most talented group in the world, its consistency and depth made sure Clark had open targets all season long.
Throw in an offensive line that had first-team All-Big Ten members at every position – A.Q. Shipley at center, Rich Ohrnberger at guard and Gerald Cadogan at tackle – and Penn State had the perfect storm to have an explosive offense.
They didn't disappoint, rarely making crippling mistakes in addition to moving the ball down the field with ease during most games. The Nittany Lions made just 16 turnovers – second-best in the league – while earning the most first downs, allowing the fewest sacks, having the best third-down conversion rate and scoring touchdowns on a fantastic 66.6 percent of their red-zone chances.
Only four times was Penn State held below 30 points, those coming in wins against Ohio State and Purdue and in losses to Iowa and USC. The teams took varying tracks to shutting down the Nittany Lion offense.
Purdue actually didn't fare very well, allowing 422 yards on the day. Penn State moved the ball consistently but left some points on the field thanks to two field goals and a long, game-ending drive that ended with the Nittany Lions taking a knee after killing nearly seven minutes of time and driving 58 yards.
Ohio State made Penn State have to drive the length of the field to score – except on the game-deciding touchdown drive that came after Terrelle Pryor's famed fumble. Iowa's standout defensive line pressured Clark all day and made enough of a dent in the Nittany Lion running game. USC, meanwhile, gave up a healthy chunk of yards (410) but earned an early lead that made Penn State play catch-up.
In 2009, teams may want to focus on shutting down that running game from the beginning. Even with Clark returning, the Nittany Lions will have to prove they can pass the ball after the departures of Norwood, Williams and Butler.
The top returning wideout is Brett Brackett, a converted quarterback who only got a chance to play wideout because he gave the scout team such a good look at former Notre Dame wideout Jeff Samardzija. Brackett, who stands 6-6, caught 13 passes for 160 yards last year. Graham Zug put up similar numbers, making 11 catches for 174 yards and two scores.
Two wild cards are possible starters Chaz Powell and Derek Moye. Moye, a sophomore, played in 10 games and caught three passes last year, while Powell was a highly rated speedster coming out of high school. He mostly returned kicks last year but needs to be a playmaker in the framework of the offense in 2009.
One area of relief should be tight end, where Andrew Quarless is both big (6-5, 253) and athletic and Mickey Shuler is a dependable blocker and receiver. The two combined for 20 catches and two touchdowns last year.
Another key concern will be the offensive line, which lost all three All-Big Ten picks and returns two starters. Center Stefan Wisniewski is a great talent, though he'll be playing his first year at the position after starting at guard last year, while right tackle Dennis Landolt was a liability at times a season ago.
The replacements all have been highly rated recruits in the past, but that is no guarantee for success. Possible starters include junior Lou Eliades, sophomores DeOn'tae Pannell, J.B. Walton and Johnnie Troutman and redshirt freshman Matt Stankiewitch, while one shouldn't count out true freshman Eric Shrive, one of the nation's top recruits.
Key To The Season (Off): How the offensive line develops. The wide receivers have some talent, and it's probably the least important position on the field as far as offense goes. The line, however, is all-important, and the Nittany Lions suffered major losses there. Wisniewski should be fine but the rest of the positions are question marks. Penn State could find the sledding a lot tougher in 2009 if this unit fails to jell quickly.
Defensive Overview: Lost among Penn State's offensive success in 2008 was the fact that the Nittany Lions had one of the best defenses in the nation – at least until USC came calling in the Rose Bowl.
Just two teams – Illinois and Iowa – topped 20 points on PSU during the regular season, with each compiling a grand total of 24. Meanwhile, five teams were kept to single digits. Eight of the 12 regular-season opponents were held below 300 yards, three of whom couldn't even get to 200.
The Nittany Lions boasted one of the top front sevens in the nation, allowing a Big Ten-best 93.2 yards per game on the ground and averaging 2.54 sacks per game, third in the league. Despite some early-season issues with discipline and the preseason dismissals of two tackles, Penn State had a dominating tackle in Jared Odrick, a feared pass rusher in Aaron Maybin and a potentially great linebacker in Navorro Bowman. All earned first-team All-Big Ten honors, and deservedly so.
The secondary played well most of the season – Penn State finished third in the league in passing yards allowed and passing efficiency while, in regular-season games, intercepting 16 passes against just six touchdowns – but observers wondered just how good it truly was.
Those concerns were met in the Rose Bowl, a game in which USC showed up – as they are wont to do in big games – and Penn State just couldn't stop the Mark Sanchez-led attack. USC completed 28 of 35 passes for 413 yards and four touchdowns.
That's bad news going into 2009, as all four starters from that Nittany Lion secondary have left, leaving a vacuum into which some talented but untested players must step. The problem of replacing all four starters left even Paterno worried during the spring, as he declared, "We've got a long, long way to go to be a good secondary. We're not even close."
The two players with the most experience are senior cornerback A.J. Wallace and sophomore safety Drew Astorino. Wallace has been a spot starter over the years and was a highly touted prospect coming out of high school, so he could be fine as the top corner. Astorino emerged as the nickel back last year, has good instincts and is one of the most athletic players on the team.
At the second corner spot, Knowledge Timmons is an experienced hand as a senior who has earned spot playing time over the years, though his height at 5-10 could be taken advantage of. At the hero spot formerly occupied by Anthony Scirrotto, Andrew Dailey has size (6-2, 221) and was a top prospect coming out of Massillon Washington.
The front seven still should be strong with Bowman and Odrick coming back and the return of Sean Lee, one of the top linebackers in the conference before suffering a blown knee during last season's spring practices.
With Lee (138 tackles in '07) and Bowman (106 stops, 16.5 TFL, two forced fumbles) back, the Nittany Lions will boast one of the top linebacker units in the country. Michael Mauti should be ready to step into the third starting role, while Chris Colasanti is another highly rated prospect. Josh Hull, who started in Lee's stead last year, adds depth.
The Nittany Lions are absolutely loaded at tackle, a position anchored by Odrick, who made 9.5 TFL and 4.5 sacks while living in opposing teams' backfields last year as a junior. Ollie Ogbu and Abe Koroma come back after combining for 43 tackles, while Devon Still is probably the best fourth option in the league.
The ends will be young and perhaps susceptible. Sophomore Jack Crawford was a project upon arrival, though his 6-5, 262-pound frame boasts plenty of skill. Senior Jerome Hayes has patiently waited his turn and fought through injury, and he should be in the mix.
Key To The Season (Def): The play of the secondary. Whether Paterno was being coy or not when discussing the defensive backs during the spring, there's no doubt that's the group on the spot given its inexperience. If the secondary proves even competent, Penn State will have another dominating defense and compete for another league title.
Special Teams: Penn State always seems to have solid special teams, and last year was no different. Kevin Kelly was one of the best kickers in the league, Jeremy Boone was one of the best punters, Penn State had the best net punting and kickoff coverage teams in the league and the Nittany Lions got three return scores, most in the Big Ten.
Kelly leaves, and the Nittany Lions might just go with Anthony Fera, a true freshman, in the kicker's role. Fera was one of the best prep kickers in the country and he boasts the leg to make three-pointers from 60 yards. Penn State shouldn't be shy with throwing a freshman out there considering Kelly spent all four of his years as the starter. Collin Wagner, who made a 43-yarder last year on his only try, will also battle.
Boone averaged 43.0 yards per kick last year and had more 50-plus yard kicks (six) than touchbacks (five).
Williams was the No. 1 punt and kickoff return man and had all three touchdowns doing so last year. Powell and Wallace also have experience and shouldn't result in much of a drop.
New Name To Know: WR Justin Brown, 6-3.5, 210, Wilmington (Del.) Concord – Brown, a four-star prospect and the nation's No. 9 wideout, was a late pickup by Penn State, and the Nittany Lions aren't complaining. He'll enter a position that was destroyed by graduation. Offensive coordinator Tom Bradley has admitted the Nittany Lions might have to look to freshmen to help fill the position, and Brown's physical tools will put him at the top of the list.
Best Case Scenario: The Nittany Lions have a nonconference schedule full of cupcakes and perhaps the two biggest contenders to its crown in Ohio State and Iowa at home. If the youngsters mature quickly – Iowa comes to town Sept. 26 – and the veterans pick up where they left off, Penn State will certainly be in the Big Ten race and possibly again find themselves battling for a national title.
Worst Case Scenario: The losses at wide receiver, offensive line and defensive back are too much to overcome when the chips are down against teams like OSU, Iowa and Michigan State. Penn State lost its three best players at each position, so repairing those units will not be easy. The other Big Ten contenders will have a chance to take advantage, but it's hard to imagine this team losing more than three games.
OSU Game: The Buckeyes will want revenge for 2008. Penn State will want to make amends for a night-game drubbing they suffered in Beaver Stadium in '07. And, oh yeah, the Big Ten title very well could be on the line when both teams kick off November.
Let's cut to the chase: Most observers agree that Ohio State and Penn State will be the class of the league yet again, but both squads will be young in key areas. As so often happens when two good teams get together, the game should come down to who makes the fewest mistakes. Figuring out who that will be is impossible until gameday.
Handicapping this one right now is hard because both teams have question marks but lots of talent waiting in the wings to answer those concerns. Predicting a high-scoring game would seem to be folly considering the strength of the two defenses up the middle. This one should be a hard-fought, electric affair that comes down to the very end.