Opponents preview: Penn State offense

Part two of BadgerNation.com's three-part look at the 2005 Nittany Lions

Penn State needs improvement in every aspect of its offensive football team. But with a pair of exciting true freshmen on board and some veteran talent that may be ready to come of age, the Nittany Lions could reach respectability after a futile 2004.

2004 by the numbers

Total offense: 310.7 yards per game (No. 104 nationally); 252.8 yards per conference game (11)
Scoring offense: 17.7 points per game (109); 12.9 (11)
Passing offense: 180.8 (90); 158.1 (11)
Passing efficiency: 97.5 (111); 85.4 (11)
Rushing offense: 129.9 (81); 94.6 (10)
Touchdowns: 24 – 10 passing, 14 rushing; 11 – 5 passing, 6 rushing
Third-down conversions:37.2 percent on 58 of 156; 35 percent on 43 of 123 (10)
Turnovers lost:27 – 19 interceptions, 8 fumbles (97); 16 – 13 interceptions, 3 fumbles (10)
Field goal kicking:53.8 on 7 of 13; 58.3 percent on 7 of 12 (10)
Kick returns: 17.5 (109); 18.5 (11)
Punt returns: 7.2 (87); 6.7 (9)

Quarterbacks analysis

Senior Michael Robinson (6-foot-2, 225 pounds) is a gifted athlete who has not had a great deal of success as a quarterback. Granted, the players around him, from the offensive line to the receivers to the running backs, have not been up to par either, but in Robinson's auditions behind center he has struggled to run Penn State's offense with a semblance of efficiency.

It may help, however, that Robinson is taking over full time now that Zach Mills has exhausted his eligibility. Robinson played quarterback in bits and pieces last year, completing 14 of 39 passes for 170 yards, one touchdown and five interceptions. That amounted to a disturbing 55.3 passer rating.

As a receiver, however, he had 33 catches, three touchdowns and a team-leading 485 receiving yards. He also ran 49 times for 172 yards.

As a sophomore in 2003, Robinson was 62 of 138 for 892 yards, five touchdowns and five interceptions. He was 10 of 17 for 119 yards and an interception his freshman year.

In his first two seasons he combined for 659 yards and nine touchdowns rushing and 19 receptions for 144 yards.

Robinson could still see some time at receiver this year in an effort to get quarterback Anthony Morelli (6-4, 212) onto the field. Morelli has more potential as a passer than Robinson but he could not win the starting job in spring practice. Still, expect Morelli to receive some regular playing time. He played as a true freshman last year, completing 5 of 13 passes for 45 yards and an interception.

Offensive line analysis

The Nittany Lions offensive line also struggled last season. But four (possibly five) starters return to the lineup. Penn State needs the unit to improve significantly and help establish a consistent running game.

PSU has a good one in junior left tackle Levi Brown (6-5, 325), one of the better tackles in the Big Ten. Brown is strong at the point of the attack and can engulf smaller defensive ends. He has been the starting left tackle the past two years, after originally working as a defensive lineman.

Next to him is left guard Charles Rush (6-2, 305), who also will be a three-year starter in 2005.

Senior center E.Z. Smith (6-1, 280) was dismissed from the team in April along with walk-on linebacker Mike Sothern for a January incident in which an apartment wall was damaged by a bow-and-arrow. Smith, who started last season, could possibly return to the team this fall, but his availability is in doubt.

With Smith questionable, the starting center in spring ball was senior Lance Antolick (6-3, 275), a former walk-on who was the No. 2 center the past two seasons. But watch out for redshirt freshman A.Q. Shipley (6-1, 292). There have been rave reviews for Shipley, who is considered one of the team's strongest players.

Senior right guard Tyler Reed (6-4, 310), another three-year starter, was suspended while the university investigated the bow-and-arrow case, but was cleared of culpability, as was senior right tackle Andrew Richardson (6-5, 306) and defensive tackle Scott Paxson.

Reed should regain his starting spot this fall and could be ready for a big season. He is a good run blocker but he needs to be more consistent.

Richardson probably would not have started even without the suspension. Senior John Wilson (6-6, 317) has command of the right tackle spot after starting part of the season there last year.

The remaining top reserves include sophomore tackle Chris Auletta (6-4, 293), junior tackle John Shaw (6-4, 294) and junior guards Robert Price (6-0, 298) and Mark Farris (6-6, 286).

Receivers analysis

The Nittany Lions are counting on true freshmen Derrick Williams and Justin King to make a big splash here, providing PSU with what it was sorely lacking last season: skilled players who can make people miss and provide big-play potential.

Williams comes to Happy Valley as one of the top recruits in the nation, a 6-foot, 191-pound athlete with elite speed and talent and seemingly boundless potential. Williams may be PSU's top skill player from the first play of his career.

King (6-0, 181) was recruited primarily as a cornerback and he will play that position at PSU. But the Nittany Lions also want to take advantage of his speed in the passing game in multiple receiver sets.

True sophomore Mark Rubin (6-3, 213) played well in his debut last season and should compliment the frosh speedsters well. Rubin caught 16 passes for 187 yards last year and should be a dependable possession receiver.

Senior tight end Isaac Smolko (6-5, 257) can also serve as a security blanket for Robinson after catching 21 passes for 192 yards and a pair of scores last year.

Sophomore receiver Terrell Golden (6-3, 212) caught three passes for 60 yards and a touchdown last year and will compete to be in the regular rotation.

In an effort to add some excitement to the offense, the Nittany Lions converted a trio of athletically gifted defensive backs to receiver: redshirt freshman Deon Butler (5-10, 163), junior Jim Kanuch (6-1, 192) and senior Ethan Kilmer (6-0, 205).

Smolko's backup is junior Patrick Hall (6-2, 251), who is basically a sixth lineman when he is the game.

Running backs analysis

Despite all the attention placed on the freshmen receivers, junior tailbacks Tony Hunt and Austin Scott hold the key to the offense. Both are talented and have shown flashes of considerable ability. If they can put it together and give PSU a ground game to build off of, the Nittany Lions offense could be fairly decent.

After rushing for 110 yards and a touchdown and catching just two passes as a freshman, Hunt (6-2, 220) led the team in rushing and receiving last year. He garnered 777 yards on the ground (averaging 4.6 yards per carry) and scored seven touchdowns. He also caught 39 passes for 334 yards.

Scott can be a more elusive runner and is one of the most celebrated prep football players in Pennsylvania history. But the 6-foot, 212-pounder has reached upperclassman status with little to show for his PSU career thus far. He rushed for 436 yards and five touchdowns as a true freshman in 2003, and also caught 7 passes for 47 yards and a score.

Last year he picked up just 312 yards and two touchdowns rushing, though he did average 5.7 yards per carry. He caught five passes for 37 yards.

Sophomores Rodney Kinlaw (5-9, 193) and Matt Hahn (6-0, 219) and true freshman Lydell Sargeant (5-10, 175) will compete for spots in the rotation.

Hahn could also play fullback, but the blocking back role will be mostly held by junior BranDon Snow (6-1, 242) and redshirt freshman Dan Lawlor (6-1, 243).

Special teams notes

The Nittany Lions need serious improvement here too. The return game was not good last season and kicker Robbie Gould really struggled, making just 7 of 13 field goal attempts, including three misses from inside 40 yards.

Gould is gone, leaving redshirt freshman Patrick Humes and true freshman Kevin Kelly (5-9, 175) as potential replacements.

Strong safety Calvin Lowry will likely serve as the punt returner again, after averaging just 8.3 yards per return last year.

Kinlaw, Scott and Hunt split up kick returning duties last year, averaging an unexciting 19.8, 19.5 and 14.0 yards per return, respectively.

Matching up with Wisconsin

Penn State's offense will be much better this year that it was last season, when it was extremely ineffective for most of the Big Ten campaign. If Williams and King live up to their billing and if Hunt and Scott pick up their play and if the offensive line gels and if Michael Robinson throws with better accuracy, the Nittany Lions could actually be pretty good. But so much has to go right that it is likely that PSU's offense will again be the conference's worst, even though it will show substantial improvement.

The Nittany Lions will not need to score a lot of points to win, however. Their defense never gave up more than 21 last year and it should be even better this season. So if PSU can just manage a couple touchdowns and a couple of field goals a game, there will be a lot of wins to celebrate in Happy Valley.

PSU does not match up well against Wisconsin, or most defenses, of course. The Badgers' defensive line is quite a bit less experienced than the Lions' offensive line, but should be able to hold up fine.

The x-factors are of course Williams and King. They are special talents but UW should have enough in the secondary to contain PSU's passing game.

The Nittany Lions have the benefit of playing at home, though, and as long as their offense can protect the football they should score more points that their defense is likely to yield to Wisconsin.

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