Syracuse is about to start arguably the biggest season of change in the program's history. A new coaching staff, a new conference, and a new quarterback headline 2013. With the opening kickoff aust a few days away, CuseNation.com breaks down the Orange's first opponent, the Penn State Nittany Lions.
Head coach Bill O'Brien is known for his prolific passing attack from his time with the New England Patriots. When he arrived as the new coach at Penn State, he implemented a pro-style system mirroring the scheme he utilized in the NFL. However, despite his reputation as a passing guru, O'Brien oversaw a balanced attack at Penn State in 2012.
The running game become a larger part of the offense as the season went along, making the Nittany Lions a potent, balanced attack. Despite a new quarterback at the helm, the balanced offense will remain the same in 2013. Utilizing the run, a versatile passing attack, and having the two play off of each other, Penn State is poised to have a dynamic offense.
Much like Syracuse, Penn State is replacing a senior starter with an inexperienced quarterback. Unlike Syracuse, they have a junior college transfer competing with a highly touted high school recruit. Both have similar styles, but one has a trait that may see him rise above the other.
Tyler Ferguson, the junior college transfer, arrived on campus in the spring and stood out as a big quarterback who can make all the throws. In addition, he has enough mobility to be accurate while throwing on the run. Solid footwork, strong knowledge of the playbook, and poise in the pocket has made him a viable option for the Nittay Lions.
Hackenberg could start as a true freshman
Despite the head start of Ferguson, true freshman Christian Hackenberg has made this a true battle that will go right down to the wire. He has lived up to the hype of a five-star quarterback and then some. His arm strength is as advertised, possessing a cannon that can rifle the ball anywhere on the field. Hackenberg stands tall in the pocket, shows uncommon poise for a freshman and is accurate down the field.
Hackenberg is looking like he will be the guy despite the lack of an official announcement from coach O'Brien. He all the tools you look for in a big time quarterback. While his knowledge of the playbook isn't where Ferguson's is, but he knows enough to be a threat in game one.
Confusion will be the key for Syracuse. Getting him early in the season also helps the Orange. Scott Shafer likes to mix up his blitz schemes, which should play to their advantage with a young quarterback. Tricking Hackenberg into thinking zone when they are in man coverage will be a key as well. If they allow him to be comfortable, he has the weapons to make the Orange pay.
Penn State's primary weapon through the air will be junior wide receiver Allen Robinson. The best receiver in the Big-10 a year ago, Robinson is back and poised for an even better season in 2013. At 6-foot-3, 210-pounds, Robinson runs crisp routes and possesses excellent hands. On film, he stands out as having a knack for getting open both in the short and intermediate passing game.
The Syracuse secondary will have their hands full with Robinson who will be one of the better receivers they face all season. He doesn't have blazing speed, but can get behind the safeties if the Orange are not careful.
The rest of the receiving core is solid, but unspectacular. Redshirt freshman Eugene Lewis may have the most upside of the group. He should move around between the slot and the outside and is dangerous in the open field.
Opposite Robinson as a starter is fifth year senior Brandon Felder. He also has a big frame at 6-2, 200. Felder is a solid receiver with good hands, but isn't the playmaker that Robinson is.
On the ground, Penn State features three very talented backs. Similar to Syracuse, this may be the position of most depth on the Nittany Lions roster. Starter Zach Zwinak is a bruiser who runs with power behind his 240-pound frame. Despite only starting four games last season, he managed to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark.
Zwinak is a throw back, between the tackles power runner. He bounces off of tackles and pulls the pile forward. With consistent touches, Zwinak can wear down a front seven, making him more difficult to bring down in the fourth quarter. Limiting his effectiveness early will be key for the Orange. If Zwinak gets going, it opens up everything else for the Nittany Lions. Play-action becomes a bigger weapon, the safeties are forced to creep up into the box, creating a chance for big plays down the field.
Behind Zwinak are two runners who possess a different skill set. Junior Bill Belton and redshirt freshman Akeel Lynch are both dangerous backs. Lynch has more wiggle and is more of a home run threat, but Belton can hurt a defense as well. On third and long situations, expect to see these two rotate in to give Penn State another receiving threat. They also allow the Nittany Lions to attack the outside a bit more on the ground.
The combination of these three backs give Penn State a lot to work with in the run game.
Not to be outdone, the Nittany Lions have a group of very talented tight ends. Sophomores Jesse James and Kyle Carter are the main guys, but Matt Lehman and Adam Breneman are also threats. All four are very strong blockers that can help open up holes for their talented running backs as well as pass protect.
But the Penn State tight ends are not one dimensional as they can contribute in the passing game. James has a big 6-7 frame that can be a big matchup problem for opposing defenses. Jump balls in the end zone or finding the open seam down the middle are areas that James makes his living. Carter is a bit more athletic and has a bit more speed.
Lehman is a fifth year senior who is a solid contributor that can step in for James or Carter without missing a beat. He also has a big body that creates mismatches at 6-6, but might be the best blocker of the bunch. True freshman Adam Breneman has a huge ceiling with a lot of athleticism. He has the potential to be a real threat down the field.
In the Trenches
The Penn State offensive line is big, physical and experienced. The unit started coming together late in the 2012 season where they were able to run the ball whenever they wanted. The Nittany Lions will feature two fifth year seniors, two redshirt juniors and a redshirt sophomore among their starters up front.
Donovan Smith will try to keep the Syracuse pass rush at bay
Left tackle Donovan Smith may be the most talented of the group, and center Ty Howie is a very smart football player who reads defensive fronts very well. At right tackle is Garry Gilliam who has a big 6-6, 303-pound frame. He is solid as both a pass protector and run blocker.
Fifth year senior Adam Gress may also get some time at right tackle. He has a bit more girth than Gilliam but not be as strong as a pass blocker.
The two guards feature Jon Urschel and Miles Dieffenbach, who are road graders that started to click when Zwinak became the feature back. They are strong in the power running game and solid in pass protection.
This group could give the Syracuse defensive line trouble, as their size, strength and athleticism can derail solid pass rushers. The weakness of the Orange defense will matchup with one of the strengths of the Penn State offense. The winner of this battle will have a huge impact on the outcome of the game.
Penn State utilizes a base 4-3 scheme. They do not venture out of that, and like to play straight up. They blitz at times, but rely on their defensive line to generate pressure. They prefer to utilize two corners as opposed to showing a nickel or dime look. In 2012, they rarely, if ever, had more than two corners on the field.
They have more depth in the secondary which will allow that option this season, but prefer the straight up look. It's a professional system that relies on athleticism and playmaking ability of the players within the scheme.
In the past, they have not been a frequent blitzing team. This season could change that with the added depth and confidence in the secondary.
In the Trenches
Penn State has size and athleticism up front. They are led by redshirt sophomore Deion Barnes who emerged as a big time pass rushing threat. He is, by far, the best on the team at pressuring the quarterback. Barnes was the Big-10 Freshman of the Year in 2012 and is looking to build on that production.
Deion Barnes is an elite pass rusher
He has great speed off the edge, but underrated strength with the bull rush. Barnes utilizes the swim move regularly and combines that with a high motor. But Barnes is not a one trick pony. He is also solid against the run and makes plays in the backfield. It will be a big task for the Orange to contain the talented defensive end.
At tackle, senior DaQuan Jones leads the way with a huge 6-3, 318-pound frame. This will be Jones first year as a starter, but he has been part of the rotation since he was a freshman. Despite his size, he is quick off his feet and is solid collapsing the pocket up the middle. Jones has great strength and is a force against the inside run game.
The Nittany Lions will use a rotation at tackle, where players like Kyle Baublitz, Austin Johnson and Derek Dowrey will see snaps. Austin Johnson is a redshirt freshman with a lot of potential, and has been impressive during camp. He has size, strength and quickness, but will be playing in his first college game on Saturday.
If the Orange can contain Barnes off the edge and Jones up the middle, they should have the ability to be successful on offense. The Nittany Lions don't have a legitimate pass rusher outside of Barnes. However, containing him will be no easy task.
The Back Seven
The Penn State linebackers are a solid unit with three competent players that can run, hit and cover. However, they lack any significant depth. Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman start on the outside. Both have good speed for the position and are solid tacklers who can help in the run game. Hull is a bit undersized who could be utilized in blitz packages this season.
The man in the middle is Glenn Carson, a fifth year senior who is one of the leaders on defense. He is strong at reading defenses and has the quickness to react in order to make a play.
Behind the three starters is inexperience and a lack of Penn State-like talent. This leaves the Nittany Lions susceptible to a consistent power running attack which could wear down the linebackers, creating larger running lanes late in the game. Jerome Smith fits in perfectly to that game plan, being able to run between the tackles with power.
Backup safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong has been taking some reps at outside linebacker during camp to help improve the depth.
Amos is a playmaker in the Penn State secondary
In the secondary, Penn State has improved its depth from a year ago. Safety Adrian Amos may be the most talented player in the group, utilizing strong cover skills and solid speed. He can help out in the run game as well, and is expected to be one of the playmaking stars of the defense.
The depth at corner with starters Trevor Williams and Jordan Lucas, both who have exceptional size for the position, as well as backups Jordan Smith and Da'Quan Davis will allow Penn State to mix up their coverages a bit more. Expect to see more man initially, while possibly utilizing some zone coverage on blitzes in certain situations.
Penn State had major struggles in the kicking game last season, and those could continue in 2013. Kicker Sam Ficken started two for his first eight in 2012 before finishing the season connecting on his final ten attempts. In those last ten tries, none were greater than 39-yards. The lack of a big leg from Ficken could lead to more fourth down attempts by the Nittany Lions.
The punter, senior Alex Butterworth, had his share of struggles as well. On 71 punts, he only averaged 37-yards per attempt and was wildly inconsistent.
As a return unit, despite having quality athletes, the Nittany Lions struggled to make big plays. This season, backup running backs Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch look to be the primary kick returners. Jesse Della Valle will be the guy on punt returns. There is potential to make some plays here based on talent, but there is concern about their struggles in 2012.
If field position becomes a big factor, Syracuse appears to hold a significant advantage on special teams.
Some of Syracuse's weaknesses could be exposed by Penn State's strengths. Specifically up front where the Nittany Lions offensive line could control the pass rush of the Orange.
But Syracuse can counter with their own advantage, utilizing the power running game to wear down a Penn State linebacking core that lacks depth. The special teams advantage goes to the Orange, while the Nittany Lions hold the advantage at receiver.
These teams matchup evenly on paper. The deciding factor could very well be which quarterback steps up to make a play during crunch time.
FightOnState.com's Mark Brennan contributed to this report.