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Prelude to a Season: #6

6.) Penn State Nittany Lions

Penn StateWhat You Need to Know
We certainly missed the mark on the Nittany Lions last season. Blame our prediction of an 8-win season and only a Top 5 finish in the Big 10 on the litany of arrests, the ESPN hack jobs, the injuries, etc. On paper, Penn State seemed destined for more letdown and disappointment and the quiet rumblings about Joe Pa as their coach seemed imminent to reach fever pitch by season’s end. Needless to say, after an 11-2 season and a split Big 10 title, we clearly have some egg on our collective faces. This season may just be the polar opposite for the Nittany Lions, as they begin the year with high expectations and a presumed driver’s seat position for the Big 10 title, yet have some pretty significant losses to graduation that they must find a way to fill.

Offensively, the Nittany Lions suffer losses all over the field, but most notably in the receiving corps.Their three leading receivers in Deon Butler, Jordan Norwood, and Derrick Williams all depart, and take with them their combined 132 catches, 1900+ yards, and 17 TDs. Filling their shoes will fall largely on junior Brett Brackett, whose 6’6″ frame should worry opposing secondaries. At the skill positions, PSU returns senior QB Darryl Clark and junior RB Evan Royster, 1st and 2nd Team All Big 10 selections respectively. Protecting Clark and opening holes for Royster will be new faces and old faces in new positions up front for the Nittany Lions. Gone are 1st Team All American center AQ Shipley, 1st Team All Big 10 LT Gerald Cadogan, and 3rd Team All American LG Rich Ohrnberger. Former G Stefen Wisniewski moves to center, and new starters appear at RG, LG, and LT. Right tackle is anchored by senior Dennis Landolt and at TE, senior Andrew Quarless returns. The offensive line as a whole averages 6’4″ 303 lbs, so while they are inexperienced they are certainly capable of moving opposing defenses wherever they want to. Last season, Penn State averaged 38.9 points per game and 206 yards on the ground per game. They also protected Clark quite well, along with his mobiliti, allowing only 13 sacks. Clark’s ability to dodge defenders and avoid pressure may be put to the test early as the offensive line gets used to playing together. The Penn State offense is led by the running back crew, who return in tact, and is one of the best running back units in the country.

Defensively, Penn State returns only 4 starters to a unit that was dominating last season. They allowed only 280 yards and 14.4 points per game, and only gave up 20 points or more twice all season. Their losses include both of their DEs who left early for the NFL, Aaron Maybin and Maurice Evans. Their linebacking crew is amazingly young and exceptionally talented. Navorro Bowman and Sean Lee return and anchor this unit which will cause chaos for the Big 10 offensive units they face and rekindle the former dubbing “Linebacker U” for Penn State. The secondary for PSU is without question the largest question for the Nittany Lions. Gone are all 4 starters, all of whom were Honorable Mention All Big 10 or better. The playing opportunity is there for anyone who exhibits a willingness and want to succeed. Luckily, this defense has no dominating offense on the schedule, and by the time they face their toughest test in Ohio State, they’ll be well seasoned and experienced.

In the coaching ranks, the legendary Joe Paterno enters his 44th year at Penn State, with a record 383 wins. He’s been to a record 35 Bowls, winning 23 of them, and in search of his third national title and 6th undefeated season. His staff is consistent and loyal, as both offensive coordinator Galen Hall and Tom Bradley have been with Paterno for years, in Bradley’s case, 31 of them. Paterno has coached from the booth, battled through injuries, and endured constant rumors and rumblings about his health, his job security, or his passion for coaching. Year after year, he comes back and leads a program he has built. This year is no different.

Helping that leadership and sure to pile up those wins is Penn State’s schedule. Out of conference it’s one of the weakest in FBS, as they play host to Akron, Syracuse, Temple, and Eastern Illinois. In conference, their 4 road games are Illinois, Michigan, Northwestern, and Michigan State. At home, they get Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio State, and Indiana. Penn State doesn’t play Wisconsin or Purdue.

Who You Need to Know & Their 08 Stats
QB Daryll Clark: 192-321, 2592 yds, 19 TDs, 6 INTs, 79 att, 282 yds, 10 TDs
RB Evan Royster: 191 att, 1236 yds, 12 TDs
LB Navorro Bowman: 106 tkls, 4 sacks, 12.5 TFL, 1 INT

Game to Watch
Penn State’s goals must first include winning their conference. Their largest roadblock for that will come in their November 7th home game against Ohio State. The Buckeyes and Nittany Lions are the two teams favored to be in the running for the conference crown, both split the title last season, and the winner finds themselves in prime position for the BCS berth.

They’ll Do Well If…
… the defensive secondary and offensive line plays up to their potential despite their (lack of) experience. They certainly aren’t sexy positions or glamor jobs like linebackers, quarterbacks, or running backs, but these two units hold the keys to PSU’s success or failure this season. Expect both to do just fine.

Season Outlook
For the Nittany Lions, 2009 comes on the heels of a much celebrated and much needed successful season last year. While it didn’t end on a high note, as they were defeated by the USC Trojans in the Rose Bowl, any year that starts with a low-20’s ranking and ends with 11 wins and a Top 10 finish is clearly something for fans to be proud of. This season looks to be very different from the get go, as PSU finds themselves ranked highly, expected much of, and primed and ready for a conference title run and potential national championship. Non-conference, the Nittany Lions will not only be 4-0, they will punish their opponents. In the Big 10, Penn State’s toughest challenge will be against Ohio State, but expect a close game against Illinois. When the dust settles in 2009, Penn State will find themselves at 12-0, but may very well find themselves on the outside looking in for the BCS title game.

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