Epic. It's a word is is way, way overused these days, mostly by kids like me who grew up on Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. What makes something "epic," though? Is it a hero rising to fight evil against all odds? Is it a group of people bonding together despite their differences to form a fighting force for good that is greater than themselves? It could refer to anything that's larger than life in scope; a journey that lasts for years and changes its participants for the better. Or maybe it's the joining together of a community to get behind a group of heroes that we know can never be victorious, but will live in our hearts forever.
I. Case History and Opening Statement
A. Case History
As for as this season is concerned, you can more or less throw out everything that happened before Joe Paterno was taken down. Obviously everything that the Penn State football team did under Paterno was important for historical purposes, but in regards to the 2013 season, that era doesn't mean much. Well, except for the players that were recruited. Despite the drastic change in coaching style from Paterno to Bill O'Brien (and, you know, the "crippling" sanctions), an exceptional number of Penn State football players chose to stick around the program after the 2011 season. PSU fans were grateful for the players' support then, and that loyalty will continue to have an effect on the program now.
Just look at John Urschel, a graduate student who was recruited by Paterno many eons ago. A solid offensive lineman and even better mathematician, Urschel is the perfect representative of Paterno's dream of having students excel on the field and in the classroom. In fact, Penn State's entire offensive line is made up of upperclassmen who were originally recruited by the old regime. The unit that paved a way for the unheard of Zach Zwinak to gain over 1,000 yards last season is back in 2013, and that means that PSU doesn't need the second coming of Larry Johnson or Ki-Jana Carter on its team to have success running the ball.
Of course, offensive lineman weren't the only players to make an impact at Penn State in the first full season after the Sandusky scandal. Linebacker Michael Mauti and fullback Mike Zordich were the faces Penn State's struggle last season. They were the guys out front when the football team told the public that most of its players were staying put and were still proud to be Penn Staters. That act of support towards the fans and alumni of Penn State was the first (and most important) step towards making 2012 the enjoyable campaign that it was.
The arrival of Bill O'Brien was also an important step. The coach that barely any PSU fans had heard of was instrumental in reinvigorating the team through his modern brand of football. Instead of three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust, Penn State now had a pro-style attack that turned Matt McGloin from moxie machine to actual good quarterback. When other teams were timidly punting the ball away, O'Brien had the Lions boldly go for it on fourth down, even when it seemed like a field goal attempt would suffice. Sure, the fact that kicker Sam Ficken couldn't make a field goal at the start of the year may have pushed O'Brien's hand a little bit, but he was nevertheless using a strategy that tilted the field in Penn State's favor.
B. Opening Statement
Ladies and gentleman of the jury, don't be freaked out because Penn State hasn't revealed its starting quarterback yet. Whether Tyler Ferguson, Christian Hackenberg, or some bionic combination of the two (great strategy for opening up a scholarship, BTW) is taking the snaps this Saturday in the swamps of North Jersey, that guy will have plenty of tools to work with. We already mentioned how Penn State's veteran offensive line is so good that the team doesn't really need a good running back, but there are also plenty of "skill" position players returning to support the new signal caller.
Chief among those guys is junior wide receiver Allen Robinson. He went from zero to hero pretty quickly last season when Matt McGloin would just not stop throwing him the ball. At 6'3" and 210 pounds, Robinson has the height, hands, and route-running skills to be an elite wide receiver once again, no matter who the quarterback is. It will be hard for him to make as many clutch, fourth down receptions as he did in 2012, but that's just because he was so awesome in those situations last year that it will be impossible to repeat the performance.
Joining Robinson will be tight ends Kyle Carter, Jesse James, Matt Lehman, and Adam Breneman. The first two guys were terrific catchers of the football last season. The third was just alright, and the fourth is Penn State's most highly touted recruit who seems to be a perfect fit for O'Brien's offense. The funny thing about Breneman is that he was recruited before the Sandusky scandal and only later turned out to be a perfect fit for a coach that loves, loves, loves throwing the ball to the tight end. So was Breneman the reason O'Brien came to Penn State? Probably not, but it's fun to think about.
Anyway, O'Brien will once again use tight ends to make it tough for opponents to decipher run formations from passing formations (essentially any set with two tight ends is equivalent to one with four wide receivers) and create mismatches in the middle of the field. That should make life a little easier for whomever is deemed worthy of the starting quarterback job.
On defense, last year's coordinator Ted Roof is out, and John Butler is in. That means that very little will change schematically, so let's just get to the big issue: Penn State is starting two inexperienced cornerbacks. I've thought about this a while now and I've convinced myself that experience at the safety position is more important that at the corners. While PSU's corners will either be playing the flat (in a zone) or following wide receivers around (in man coverage), it is the safeties who are responsible for not allowing big, embarrassing plays. This is my best guess yet as to why Penn State's top corner Adrian Amos was moved to safety in the offseason. Even if one of the young corners gets toasted, Amos or Malcolm Willis or Ryan Keiser should be there to prevent a 15-yard gain from turning into a 50-yard gain. With the way quarterbacks are taught to read safeties, you can argue that it's a more mentally demanding position than corner, and thus more fit for upperclassmen.
Part of the reason Penn State fans are so worried about the secondary is because the seven guys in front should be as good as usual. Redshirt sophomore Deion Barnes will give the Lions a legitimate pass rushing threat for the first time in a while, and linebacker Josh Hull is one of the most underrated players in the conference. His ability to help in both run support and the pass rush should prove invaluable this season, even if Mike linebacker Glenn Carson hogs all the tackles.
In a nutshell, Penn State can be very successful this season if quarterback and cornerback turn out to be better than advertised. If not, struggles at the positions could make for a mediocre campaign.
A. What We Learned This Offseason
B. What We Can Learn From Pop Culture
"Allentown" by Billy Joel is a song about the American Dream gone awry. When the steel factories closed in Allentown, a lot of jobs went away. That's just like what would have happened if Penn State football got the death penalty! But it didn't, and central Pennsylvania doesn't have to feel the crippling effects of an economic catastrophe.
Still, the "longing for the good old days" vibe given off by "Allentown" is one shared by many Penn Staters since the Sandusky scandal. Kids who were brought up thinking that Penn State was on a righteous path grew up to find out that Happy Valley wasn't as perfect a place as we all thought. The good news is that it's not getting harder and harder to return to State College as the years go by, and thanks to O'Brien, the football tradition of PSU is in good hands.
III. Emotional Plea
Do we really need an emotional plea for Penn State? The NCAA and ESPN have worked together to turn the Lions into a terrific underdog story that anyone can get behind! I was actually worried that Penn State football's media presence would be decreased because of the NCAA sanctions, but instead the Lions get their own ESPNU training camp special. Hooray!
The only time I would advise Big Ten fans to root against Penn State is when they play Ohio State in Columbus on October 26. I know it would be a big win for Penn State and everything, but it could come of a cost of knocking a Big Ten team out of title contention. Even if Penn State were to somehow go undefeated, the accomplishment, much like Ohio State's unblemished mark last season, would by undermined by the media because apparently it's harder to win football games when more people are watching on TV. Try telling that to Kevin Wilson, media people.
Anyway, if Ohio State is undefeated on October 26, B1G fans should avoid rooting for Penn State, because its been way too long since a Big Ten national title. If Ohio State has already choked by then, go nuts for PSU!
IV. Verdict (Staff Predictions)
Most of the gang sees Penn State rolling through the non-conference schedule, but I think it's a little bit tougher than it is currently being imagined. It would certainly be nice, though, if PSU could avoid the slow start that plagued it in 2012.
In Big Ten season, the slate is clearly divided into "games Penn State should certainly win," and "games Penn State will have some trouble with." I'd really like to see the Lions take two of the following four contests: vs. Michigan, at Ohio State, vs. Nebraska, at Wisconsin. Anything more than that would be gravy. As for the rest of the schedule, the road game against Indiana is the biggest chance for PSU being upset.