Whoa. It feels like I'm writing this story way too early this year. I mean, don't we have to wait for Rutgers and Maryland to go first? Or Iowa? We beat them with Robert Freaking Bolden. 2014 wasn't supposed to go this way. You told me James Franklin was going to turn this team into a juggernaut! You told me Christian Hackenberg was an NFL quarterback!
About last season
The good news...
Not everything went according to plan, but Penn State made it to a bowl game for the first time since 2011, so there's that. James Franklin and offensive coordinator John Donovan couldn't figure out how to work an offense that was loaded with talent at "skill" positions, but Bob Shoop was a wizard on defense. That combination turned in some ugly wins and even uglier losses. I think my favorites were the Rutgers win because Gary Nova threw an absurd number of interceptions and the Lions came from behind, and the Illinois loss because Franklin went from shooting his mouth off about dominating the state to timidly punting on 4th-and-1 even though the Illini needed just a field goal to win.
The bad news...
Even the victories had us shaking our heads and wondering how we scored so few points against such a crap defense. Rutgers shut Penn State out in the first half after allowing a bunch of points to Howard and Indiana would have held the Lions without a touchdown if not for a Bill Belton 92-yard touchdown run that came out of nowhere. In the one game that Penn State played its best, some questionable officiating and a late Ohio State rally kept the Lions from pulling off a huge upset. Okay, maybe that one was my favorite loss. Or maybe it was the Maryland one because the Terps didn't shake hands and looked stupider than we did.
On the offensive side of the ball
The good news...
There are a lot of returning players? Yeah, I can't tell if that's a good thing or a bad thing, either. Optimism is forcing me to put it in the "good" column, but it's going to take more than experience and magic to turn last year's offensive line into a cohesive unit. With little protection for Hackenberg and few holes for the backs to run through, the line was a massive liability that slowed the whole offense down in 2014. Hopefully line coach Herb Hand can coach the boys up into something we'll be proud of.
The major stength on offense should continue to be the deep and talented wide receiver corps. I don't want to sound like a Maryland fan (well, I do, but only during basketball and lacrosse season), but this receiving group is more loaded than a twice-baked potato. DaeSean Hamilton, Geno Lewis, Chris Godwin, and Saeed Blacknall are all back for another year (or two), and this time they'll be joined by redshirt freshman DeAndre Thompkins. When you throw in the fact that five-star tight end recruit Adam Brenenman should be fully recovered from knee surgery come August, you begin to really wish this team had a good quarterback.
The bad news...
After a very encouraging freshman campaign, Hackenberg took a step backwards in 2014. As a sophomore, he completed 56 percent of his passes, gained 6.15 yards per pass attempt and threw more interceptions (15) than touchdown passes (12). That's a really low number of touchdowns when you consider that Hackenberg averaged 37 pass attempts per game.
Maybe it was all the offensive line's fault, though. Maybe this year with a more experienced line, there will be more time to throw and a more effective running game. Maybe Hackenberg will transform into the top overall NFL draft pick that he's still projected to become. I'll believe it when I see it.
Speaking of the line, its top player Donovan Smith decided to get drafted into the NFL, but gigantic junior college transfer Paris Palmer is on board as a replacement. I'm not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing. There's also very little experienced depth behind starting running back Akeel Lynch, but then again, I wouldn't be opposed to watching Lynch carry the ball 400 times this year. He really started playing like a star late during the 2014 campaign.
As a whole, this offense has all the pieces necessary to explode into a very scary unit, but also, it might not, because last year was really, really bad.
On the defensive side of the ball
The good news...
There's no way that Penn State would have qualified for a bowl game if the defense had not been one of the best in college football last year. While sanctions and line play served as excuses for the struggling offense, neither of those things was a weakness for Shoop's side of the ball. In 2015, ridiculously talented tackle Anthony Zettel is back for his senior season, and he's bringing Austin Johnson with him. Together, the pair could be one of the most dominating forces in the Big Ten, so opponents will likely find themselves attacking Penn State through the air.
But even that might prove troublesome because of the talent that the Lions are returning in the secondary. Cornerback Jordan Lucas is moving up to safety to take over for departing senior Adrian Amos, where he'll team up with either Marcus Allen or Malik Golden. Sophomore corners Christian Campbell and Grant Haley both made plays in part-time action last year and should battle it out in summer practice to see who starts opposite of the more experienced Trevor Williams.
The bad news...
There are still some key players leaving the Penn State defense, though. Amos has moved on along with the incredible linebacker Mike Hull and top pass rushers C.J. Olaniyan and Deion Barnes. Those latter three will be especially hard to replace. The linebacking corps still boasts a lot of talent with Nyeem Wartman, Brandon Bell, and Gary Wooten all on board, but we don't know if any of them are capable of becoming the next great Penn State linebacker.
As for the pass rush, Carl Nassib and Garrett Sickels lead an inexperienced group of defensive ends that will look to make a name for themselves in 2015. Especially with the way Ohio State has played recently, stopping the run will continue to be top priority in the Big Ten, but the Lions won't continue to be an elite defensive team without a solid pass rush. That part of the game is the biggest question mark for this unit heading into autumn.
On the schedule
|Sept. 5||at Temple|
|Sept. 26||San Diego State|
|Oct. 17||at Ohio State|
|Oct. 24||Maryland (at Baltimore)|
|Nov. 7||at Northwestern|
|Nov. 28||at Michigan State|
6-0 heading into Columbus sounds good, but that assumes that the Lions once again defeat two teams they barely sneaked by in 2014. Since we want this team to improve on offense, anything but 6-0 heading into Columbus would be a pretty big disappointment. Of course, the whole point of that Ohio State game is to crush Penn State's Big Ten title hopes, so it might not matter what its record is at that point. On the other hand, we didn't think the Lions had a good chance to beat the Bucks last year, either.
After the big Ohio State game, there are a few more vulnerable opponents. Maryland was nice enough to give the Lions an additional home game, so hopefully they'll take advantage in addition to getting revenge on Illinois and Northwestern before splitting the Michigan and Michigan State games. Still, Ryan Field can be tricky and I expect the Wildcats to be improved, so I'm going to say eight wins this year for Penn State. I'm hoping for 10, though.
If you're talking to a Penn State fan...
Our hero Sam Ficken, how good Hackenberg looked during the Pinstripe Bowl, the Creamery, tailgating.
What Penn State's record would be without Ficken last year, how bad Hackenberg looked at Indiana, Wawa vs. Sheetz.