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2015 Closing Arguments: Penn State

Lots of starters return for the offense, but will they play better?

Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Would you look at that? It's already time for Closing Arguments here at Off Tackle Empire. It seems like just yesterday that I was drinking the James Franklin Kool Aid and predicting nine wins for Penn State in preparation for last year's season. Forget the sanctions and forget the depth "issues." This team had the talent at the top of the roster that it takes to compete for a Big Ten title.

That might have been true (at least for positions outside the offensive line), but I was still wrong with my assessment. Even with an excellent defense that surpassed all expectations, the Lions won just two Big Ten games. Were they three plays away from five conference wins (or more)? You could say that, but you can also say that Penn State needed a heroic comeback in Piscataway and a really long Bill Belton sprint in Bloomington just to defeat Rutgers and Indiana last year. With the 2014 season being so close to awesome and so close to disastrous, I brought in Eli, the artist formerly known as Misdreavus, to help me out with the 2015 Closing Argument.

I. Case History/Opening Statement

A. Case History

Aaron: Alright, Eli. We both love Penn State. We both love Ghost-type Pokemon. Why don't we see eye to eye regarding this football team? I know you're optimistic, and I try to be too. I just don't envision the offensive line and quarterback improving enough to get more than eight or nine wins out of this season.

Eli: Thing is, we don't actually disagree on the results on the field. The team sucked last year. The offense was a tire fire. Christian Hackenberg regressed mightily. Offensive coordinator John Donovan seemed to be throwing shit at the wall to see what stuck. List goes on.

What we disagree on is the reasons why those things happened. Now, let me get the rant out of the way first:

I understand that the culture at OTE revolves around any mention of the sanctions to explain the sucktitude being viewed as excuses, but, I mean, logically speaking, what is more plausible: Franklin, the guy who's been a coach at the school for exactly one year, is a fraud and his time at Vanderbilt was a mirage, or the depth and experience of the offense was so non-existent that the bottom fell out?

We Penn State fans get accused of being in a BSD echo chamber where we only acknowledge the good stuff, but there seems to be the same thing going at OTE. If the talk on Penn State doesn't revolve around some form of Franklin sucks/Hackenberg sucks/Donovan sucks/they'll do terrible, everybody jumps at our throat. It seems like people have already decided that Franklin is a mediocre-at-best coach and there's nothing anybody can say to prove otherwise.

This creates a very unique scenario, where if someone acknowledges that we have the schedule and the talent to win 10 games, that person gets ridiculed for being delusional. Yet, if that same person turns around and says we'll win seven games, they get ridiculed for the team sucking, and it's seen as proof that Franklin sucks, Hackenberg sucks, everything sucks. We seem to be in a no-win situation when it comes to the team.

Lastly, and more frustrating still, is that the same logic used to explain why Franklin won't/may not succeed at Penn State is being used to explain why Mike Riley and Paul Chryst are going to succeed at Nebraska and Wisconsin, respectively. Think about it: Chryst did not do so well at Pitt, somehow managing to grasp defeat from the claws of victory on a consistent basis (three times last season, off the top of my head). And Riley's tenure at Oregon State is highlighted by sometimes beating a highly ranked team, but never being one themselves. So like Franklin, we're ignoring what each coach did at the other school. The only difference is that for Franklin we seem to have decided he'll suck, but for Chryst and Riley we've decided they'll do just fine. Um...

Aaron: I don't buy the hate on Franklin, either. I know I was hard on him in the Cocktail Party Preview, but that was mostly for his game management and the fact that he went 2-6 in the Big Ten after "dominating" the state all summer. I'm still confident that he's going to lead this team to a B1G title in the future, and he's recruiting skills are awesome, but I wish he would be as bold in his in-game decisions as he was in his recruiting pitch. I'm still upset that he punted on 4th-and-1 against Illinois.

I also think Franklin feels handcuffed by the hype that surrounds Hackenberg. The quarterback agreed to join Penn State when Bill O'Brien was in charge, and a big reason why was the coach's experience with NFL quarterbacks. Franklin had to balance running the offense he wanted to run and keeping Hackenberg on track for the NFL.

That's just a theory, though. Another theory is that Franklin had to throw the ball so much because the running game was going nowhere. On the other hand, even when Penn State established a ground game against Illinois last year, the Lions failed to move the ball consistently because Hackenberg was ineffective after the first quarter.

B. Opening Statement

I'm actually more pessimistic than you on the team's outcome. I expect seven wins this season pre-bowl. What I acknowledge, however, is that there's enough talent and experience to win more. A lot more.

We return nine starters on offense this season, our two biggest losses being Donovan Smith and Jesse James. James will be replaced by Adam Breneman, which, by all accounts, is the most complete TE on the team. Smith is extremely talented, so that's not going to be easy to replace. However, word on the street is that Paris Palmer is actually not doing so badly at left tackle, so there's reason for hope.

This is going to be the second year on this system, so it's going to minimize some of the silly mistakes due to the new playbook. Our offensive line went from returning one starter last season to returning four this season. Even if their talent doesn't rival that of Ohio State's, that experience counts. We return all of our receivers, two of which were among the top 10 receiving leaders in the Big Ten last season, despite the atrocity of the offense. Akeel Lynch will be the featured back, which may alleviate some of the inconsistencies we saw with the Belton/Zwinak/Lynch combo we had last season. Already mentioned the tight ends. Hackenberg spent his summer going around from camp to camp working on his mechanics. All logic points towards the offense seeing an increase in production this season.

I'm not too concerned about the defense, even though they "only" return 6 starters. The defensive ends saw plenty of time last season, so I don't think you'll see a major drop-off there. The linebackers need to really focus to make sure they replace Mike Hull's production, though. Anthony Zettel and Austin Johnson are going to eat people alive, so it might make it easier on the LBs. Sophomore safety Marcus Allen is probably going to be thrown off a game for murdering a man.

Special teams is where I'm most concerned. We don't have the safety net of Sam Ficken anymore, so if we're in a close game pray to the Jesus we score TDs. Our punt/kickoff return teams need to show more improvement this year too.

Last, but not least, we return the same amount of starters as Ohio State, and only Michigan returns more in the Big Ten. That amount of experience coming back normally yields an increase in production, and we saw that first hand with the defense last season.

Aaron: I get why fans blame the offense's troubles on the line, but Hackenberg had a couple of games to prove that he could succeed given the proper protection. In those games against Illinois and Indiana, he flopped horribly. That's when I lost faith in him as a future star.

Hackenberg throws a gorgeous deep ball and he looks like an NFL prospect... until he throws a short or intermediate pass. I was mystified last year by his inability to check down or just hit a man in stride in the middle of the field. Pro Football Focus felt the same way, ranking Hackenberg as one of the least accurate quarterbacks in the country, even when he wasn't under pressure (H/T ESPN the Magazine).

Hackenberg's flaws were better hidden in games against UCF and BC when he was able to make big plays with his arm, but when that big play wasn't there, the offense couldn't function.

Maybe all these camps that Hackenberg is going to will turn him into a much better player (I'm never going to bash the guy for not working hard), but until I see it on the field, I'm going to say that Penn State's success this season depends on the offensive line opening up holes for Lynch and giving Hackenberg time to throw the ball downfield. If the running game improves and Hackenberg boosts his accuracy, 10 or even 11 wins are on the table. If those things don't happen, Penn State will probably slip up against some less talented teams again.

As for defense, I'm like you; I'm not worrying about too much of a drop off. The secondary is deep and experienced with Jordan Lucas moving to safety and joining Allen, who could be an all-conference performer if he takes the personal fouls out of his game. One of the linebackers will step up and fill Hull's role. That's something we can feel good about from looking at the team's recent history. Finally, Zettel will create so much pressure on the inside that the younger ends will often be left in one-on-one matchups. Once again, the defense should keep Penn State competitive against teams with stronger offenses.

C. Timeline of Events

Date Opponent
Sept. 5 at Temple
Sept. 12 Buffalo
Sept. 19 Rutgers
Sept. 26 San Diego State
Oct. 3 Army
Oct. 10 Indiana
Oct. 17 at Ohio State
Oct. 24 at Maryland
Oct. 31 Illinois
Nov. 7 at Northwestern
Nov. 14 BYE
Nov. 21 Michigan
Nov. 28 at Michigan State

II. Discovery

A. What We've Written About Penn State This Offseason

B1G 2015 // Penn State Cocktail Party Preview

B1G 2015 // Will James Franklin lean on the running game in 2015?

B1G 2015 // The Penn State Potluck

B1G 2015 // Looking back at Penn State's magical 2005 season

B1G 2015 // Mother Trucking Frakkers: Hate for TTFP

B1G 2015 // A Hate Addendum for the Paper Lions

B. What We Can Learn From Pop Culture

Word on the street is that Penn State taking the names off the backs of its jerseys again. The team will also be using Lynch as a workhorse back. Those two things combined to remind me of this:

Sure, the desert (losing six Big Ten games) is no fun, but it's good to be out of the rain (sanctions), isn't it?

III. Emotional Plea

Eli: Hackenberg knows that if he has any dreams of NFL (Draft) grandeur, he has to perform better this year. A lot better. And I honestly think he can if he's not running for his life every other play this season. To your point, the only two games where he looked like his freshman-year version were the two games that were far removed from the grind of the season: UCF, by virtue of being the first game of the season, and BC, by virtue of having a month off with nobody in his face.

Aaron: Wow, that didn't feel like it was going to run so long when we were sending e-mails back and forth. Oh well. This season is going to be a really interesting one for Penn State fans and other Big Ten fans as well. I know I'm eager to see how much the offensive line has improved.

IV. The Verdict

C4B is the highest on the Lions with nine wins, so I guess that means Penn State beats Indiana again? Most of us figure that four conference wins is a fair bet for a team that has lots of potential but needs to prove that it can deliver consistently.

Writer Record
Aaron Yorke 8-4 (4-4)
Brian Gillis 7-5 (4-4)
MNWildcat 7-5 (4-4)
Ray Ransom 5-7 (2-6)
DJ Carver 8-4 (4-4)
Candystripes for Breakfast 9-3 (5-3)
babaoreally 8-4 (4-4)
Jesse Collins 7-5 (3-5)
Mike Jones 8-4 (4-4)
LincolnParkWildcat 6-6 (2-6)
GoForThree 8-4 (5-3)
Hilary Lee 8-4 (4-4)
InsertName 8-4 (4-4)
WhiteSpeedReceiver 8-4 (4-4)
Graham Filler 8-4 (4-4)
OTE Staff Average: 7.5-4.5 (3.8-4.2)