College football preview: Penn State
By Kevin Gorman and Jerry Dipaola
Published: Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013, 11:57 p.m.
3 reasons why Penn State will win
1. Potent ground and air attacks compensate for the inexperience at quarterback.
Returning a 1,000-yard rusher and pass catcher can mask deficiencies elsewhere. At least that's the hope. Running back Zach Zwinak finished the season with at least 134 yards in each of the last four games, and receiver Allen Robinson scored a touchdown once every seven times he caught a pass (11⁄77) in an NFL-type body (6-foot-3, 211 pounds). Look for redshirt freshman Akeel Lynch to challenge junior Bill Belton (4.3 yards per carry last season) for the backup job.
2. Penn State keeps churning out big, experienced offensive linemen.
No matter what happens at Penn State, coach Bill O'Brien can lean on a heavily seasoned offensive line to keep most games close. Leading the way are fifth-year seniors Ty Howle at center, John Urschel (6-3, 307) at right guard and West Mifflin's Adam Gress (6-6, 317) at right tackle. Sophomore left tackle Donovan Smith is even bigger (6-5, 327). Plus there are enough good players to allow O'Brien to rotate as many as eight players along the line. And that's after losing Matt Stankiewitch and Mike Farrell to the NFL.
3. A strong defensive line keeps a thin defense upright.
Be prepared to hear a lot of good things about defensive tackle DaQuan Jones, who is considered the top senior at his position in the country and a top NFL prospect. At 6-3, 310, he looks the part, and he's trimmer (down from 330 pounds). Mix Jones with sophomore end Deion Barnes and junior end C.J. Olaniyan, and the Nittany Lions will be tough against the run. In the Big Ten, that can be half the battle. Redshirt freshman tackle Austin Johnson leads a nice group of backups. This line won't get pushed around.
3 reasons why Penn State will lose
1. If Sam Ficken can't kick and his special team mates can't cover — again — Penn State will be at a big disadvantage.
One of the astounding facts of last season was this: Kicker Sam Ficken did not hit a field goal longer than 38 yards. In fact, he was 0 for 4 between 40-49 yards and 0 for 1 under 20. He missed four in a one-point loss to Virginia. If Penn State struggles to move the football, Ficken must get better. The other problem that needs fixing is kick coverage: Penn State was in the bottom third in the nation in defending punt (86th) and kickoff returns (89th).
2. If the new quarterbacks have trouble adjusting to their first task of major college football, Penn State is in trouble.
When O'Brien names the starter, he will be choosing a player who never has thrown a pass in an FBS game. Freshman Christian Hackenberg was a five-star recruit, and just getting him to say yes to Penn State under the circumstances was a victory. Whether he can find consistent success on the field is another matter. Junior-college transfer Tyler Ferguson threw for 2,614 yards for the College of Sequoias (Calif.) last season, but that school didn't play Ohio State. Penn State visits there Oct. 26.
3. There are good players in the back seven of Penn State's defense — just not enough of them.
As you may expect of a team hit with recruiting sanctions, Penn State won't have great depth, especially on defense. First-year defensive coordinator John Butler is moving players back and forth like chess pieces to fill holes on the depth chart behind reliable linebackers Mike Hull and Glenn Carson. But his biggest problem may be at cornerback, with sophomores Trevor Williams and Jordan Lucas carrying their inexperience into the starting lineup.
Who to watch
Junior, wide receiver
With a new starting quarterback, Robinson might be hard pressed to improve upon his breakout sophomore season. A probable All-American candidate, he shattered PSU's season reception record with 77. His 1,013 yards marked the third 1,000-yard season in school history.
Junior, running back
Despite starting just four games, Zwinak reached 1,000 rushing yards last season, marking the eighth straight season a Nittany Lion has done so. An honorable mention All-Big Ten selection, Zwinak became the 14th Nittany Lion to crack the 1,000-yard mark in a season.
With the departure of standouts Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges, Hull will be a stabilizing factor for the defense. The Canon-McMillan graduate ranked sixth on the team with 58 tackles and had five tackles for loss, four sacks, two fumble recoveries and an interception.
He started every game last season at cornerback, recording 44 tackles, two INTs and 21⁄2 tackles for loss. An honorable-mention All-Big Ten, he will be counted upon to be one of the leaders. His 4.45 40-yard time and 351⁄2-inch vertical jump ranked second on the team in the spring.
Freshman, tight end
Rated the nation's No. 1 tight end coming out of Cedar Cliff, Breneman enrolled in January 2013 and began rehabbing a knee injury that he suffered prior to the start of his senior season in high school. Coach Bill O'Brien said he plans to waste no time using Breneman.
After a nearly 20-year absence, the teams renewed their series in 2008, with Penn State winning, 55-13. The Nittany Lions won again the following year, 28-7, but the teams haven't played since. This is Syracuse's first game as a member of the ACC.
vs. Eastern Michigan
The Nittany Lions lost to another member of the Mid-American Conference when they were upset at home by Ohio in last year's opener. There should be no such worries this time: Eastern Michigan went 2-10 in 2012 and is 10-38 under coach Ron English.
vs. Central Florida
Penn State doesn't want to get caught looking past this game. Central Florida possesses a dynamic offense, led by QB Blake Bortles, which averaged 35 points a game last year.
vs. Kent State
The final game of Penn State's nonconference schedule features another beatable MAC opponent at home. Kent State, though, is no pushover, having gone 11-3 a year ago and featuring senior playmaker Dri Archer.
Penn State is 16-0 all-time against Indiana as the teams square off for the seventh consecutive year. Meeting No. 17 should result in another win for the Nittany Lions.
Penn State has won three straight in this series after losing nine in a row. It's the second consecutive meeting between the teams in University Park.
at Ohio State
The series returns to Ohio State after the Buckeyes won last year's meeting on the road. Two years ago, the Nittany Lions upset Ohio State, 20-14, for their first win in Columbus since 2008.
Penn State trounced Illinois, 35-7, last year. This year's home game against the Illini figures to be a welcome break for the Nittany Lions following back-to-back games against Michigan and Ohio State.
Penn State's third Big Ten road game in five games comes against an opponent that hasn't won a league title since 1967. Minnesota went 2-6 in the Big Ten last season and is still searching for an identity under third-year coach Jerry Kill.
Penn State goes for win No. 7 in a row against Purdue. The Nittany Lions haven't lost at home to Purdue since 2004.
Penn State has lost the past three meetings against Nebraska and hasn't beaten the Cornhuskers in State College since 2002.
Penn State and Wisconsin are matched up in the regular-season finale through 2016. The Nittany Lions won in OT last season.
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