Penn State Nittany Lions

Talented squad yet depth a real concern with lingering NCAA sanctions

Penn State running back Zach Zwinak is brought down by the Iowa defense during the first half at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, Oct. 20, 2012. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Penn State running back Zach Zwinak is brought down by the Iowa defense during the first half at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, Oct. 20, 2012. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

The first installment of a series ranking potential B1G championship game opponents that Iowa will not play in the regular season: No. 5 Penn State (ranking based on ineligiblity for B1G title game)


Conference: Big Ten, East Division

2013 record: 7-5 (4-4 Leaders Division)

Returning offensive starters (5): QB Christian Hackenberg, RB Zach Zwinak, TE Jesse James, TE Kyle Carter, T Donovan Smith

Projected starting offense: QB Christian Hackenberg, so., 6-3, 220; RB Zach Zwinak, sr., 6-1, 240; WR Geno Lewis, so., 6-1, 200; WR Matt Zanellato, WR., jr., 6-3, 200; TE Jesse James, jr., 6-7, 257; TE Kyle Carter, jr., 6-3, 243; LT Donavan Smith, jr., 6-5, 322; RT Andrew Nelson, so., 6-5, 300 OR Chasz Wright, true fr., 6-7, 310; G Derek Dowrey, so., 6-3, 305; G Brian Gaia, so., 6-3, 285; C Angelo Mangiro, so., 6-3, 309

Returning defensive starters (7): DE C.J. Colaniyan, DE Deion Barnes; LB Mike Hull; LB Nyeem Wartman; CB Adrian Amos; CB Jordan Lucas; S Ryan Keiser

Projected starting defense: DE C.J. Olaniyan, sr., 6-3; 252; DE Deion Barnes, jr., 6-4, 255; DT Austin Johnson, so., 6-4, 313; DT Anthony Zettel, jr., 6-4, 275; MLB Mike Hull, jr., 6-0, 227; OLB Nyeem Wartman, so., 6-1, 241; OLB Ben Kline, jr., 6-2, 238; CB Adrian Amos, jr., 6-0, 209; CB Jordan Lucas, so., 6-0, 198; S Ryan Keiser, jr., 6-1, 205; S Jesse Della Valle, sr., 6-1, 203

Returning specialists (3): K Sam Ficken, sr., 6-3, 175; PR Jesse Della Valle, sr., 6-1, 203; KR Geno Lewis, so., 6-1, 200

Other specialists: LS Zach Ladonis, so., 6-2, 219; P Chris Gulle, true fr., 6-0, 188

Key losses: WR Allen Robinson, G John Urschel, DT DaQuan Jones, MLB Glenn Carson, P Alex Butterworth, T Adam Gress

Key additions: WR Saeed Blacknall, 6-2, 210 (Manalapan, N.J.); DB Koa Farmer, 6-1, 205 (Lake View Terrace, Calif.); TE Mike Gesicki, 6-5, 245 (Mahahawkin, N.J.); WR Chris Godwin, 6-2, 205 (Middletown, Del.); QB Michael O’Connor, 6-5, 225 (Ottawa, Ontario); WR De’Andre Thompkins, 6-0, 175 (Swansboro, N.C.)

2013 review: Reminiscent of its tumultuous 2012 season, Penn State mixed outstanding results with a few humbling defeats last year. After starting 2-0, the Nittany Lions stumbled 34-31 at home to Central Florida. At the time, it appeared as a bad loss, but UCF ultimately won the Fiesta Bowl. But the mixed results started three weeks later when Indiana rolled Penn State 44-24, the Nittany Lions’ first loss to the Hoosiers.

Then Penn State topped Michigan in a four-overtime epic. Two weeks later, Ohio State trampled Penn State 63-14 in front of a primetime television audience. But the Nittany Lions regrouped to top Illinois in overtime the following week, 24-17, before suffering a 24-10 setback at Minnesota. A win against Purdue was followed by an overtime loss to Nebraska. Penn State concluded the season with one of the league’s top upsets, a 31-24 victory at Wisconsin in the season finale.

Despite the bowl ban and scholarship reductions, Penn State finished with a winning record for the second consecutive season under Bill O’Brien. But two years in the shadow of NCAA sanctions and Joe Paterno’s legacy was too much for O’Brien, who left Penn State for the NFL’s Houston Texans. The Nittany Lions hired Vanderbilt Coach James Franklin, who has energized the program in multiple ways. He already has Penn State ranked among the nation’s top recruiting teams despite two more years of bowl bans. In three years this could be a scary football program.

2014 schedule: A30 vs. Central Florida (at Dublin, Ireland); S6 Akron; S13 at Rutgers; S20 Massachusetts; S27 Northwestern; O11 at Michigan; O25 Ohio State; N1 Maryland; N8 at Indiana; N15 Temple; N22 at Illinois; N29 Michigan State

Key Stretch: Penn State has a very strange October. The Nittany Lions are off the first weekend, play at Michigan, then are off again. But the schedule sequence of Michigan-Ohio State-Maryland remains, and each is important in its own way. Michigan and Penn State have engaged in some battles over the years, and last year’s 43-40 four-overtime win for PSU was no different. Penn State measures itself against Ohio State and recruiting efforts between the two are amplified with two former SEC coaches running their shows. This rivalry will only escalate as Penn State sheds past penalties. The Nittany Lions’ Nov. 1 game against Maryland reignites a border series and the inaugural game as Big Ten foes establishes the tempo for years to come.

Trap game: Penn State closes out its first month under James Franklin against cross-divisional foe Northwestern. There’s no reason for Franklin to know about the history between the schools, but PSU wrecked Northwestern’s hopes for a special season in 2012. The Nittany Lions scored 22 consecutive points in the fourth quarter to stun the Wildcats 39-28. Northwestern won 10 games that year and the loss cost the Wildcats their best start in 50 years. You can bet Northwestern Coach Pat Fitzgerald or his players have yet to forget about that defeat.

Glass half-full: Penn State remains bowl ineligible so the team’s goals are fairly straightforward. The opener against Fiesta Bowl champion Central Florida is challenging but not impossible. It also becomes a de facto bowl game at Dublin, Ireland. If QB Christian Hackenberg continues to make strides, the offensive line stays healthy and Geno Lewis adequately replaces Allen Robinson, the Nittany Lions have a decent shot at winning their first six games entering a home showdown at night with Ohio State. The Nittany Lions’ next four games are against three non-bowl teams in 2013 and the Nittany Lions meet defending Big Ten champion Michigan State at home in the finale.

Glass half-empty: Penn State already lost one of its best players in guard Miles Dieffenbach to a knee injury. It’s unlikely he’ll play this year. Penn State’s makeshift offensive line struggles to protect Hackenberg, and the high-flying offense is grounded with inexperienced wide receivers. The lack of depth caused by NCAA sanctions catches up on both sides of the ball. Penn State competes against most opponents for three quarters but exhausted players often lose close games. It’s possible the Nittany Lions could make improvements yet finish with a losing record should injuries and depth take their toll.

The Iowa angle: Throughout the 2000s, Iowa was a perpetual thorn to Penn State. The Hawkeyes won eight of nine meetings from 2000 through 2010, and many were painful figuratively for Penn State. In 2000 and 2001, Iowa wins kept PSU from a bowl games. Penn State rallied from a 35-13 deficit in 2002 to force overtime, but Iowa prevailed 42-35. In 2004, Iowa Coach (and Pennsylvania native) Kirk Ferentz buried his father earlier in the week then fought through emotions in a 6-4 win at Beaver Stadium. Those victories helped give Iowa a pair of Big Ten championship trophies.

In 2008, Penn State was 9-0 and ranked No. 3 when it faced Iowa at Kinnick Stadium. The Nittany Lions led 23-14 in the fourth quarter, but Iowa stormed back and won the game 24-23 on a last-second field goal. The result kept Penn State from a BCS title game appearance and propelled Iowa into its second renaissance under Ferentz. In 2009, No. 5 Penn State vowed revenge with its traditional white-out against Iowa. Penn State jumped to a 10-0 first-quarter lead, but Iowa’s defense was too physical for the Nittany Lions. A blocked punt return by Iowa All-American defensive end Adrian Clayborn lifted Iowa to a fourth-quarter lead and ultimately a 21-10 win.

The Hawkeyes stifled PSU 24-3 in 2010, but Penn State has taken the last two meetings, including a 13-3 defensive slugfest in 2011. In 2012, PSU scorched Iowa 38-14 in a non-competitive night game at Kinnick Stadium. The teams will not play again until Nov. 5, 2016. Penn State is ineligible to play in the Big Ten Championship Game for the next two seasons.

Quotable: “This is a resilient group as you guys can all imagine. They’ve been through a lot of adversity during their careers here. I think because of that, they have become really, really close as players. When we first got here, there was a little bit of a wall up. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. We’re starting to break that wall down for sure. That’s going to be a work in progress.” — Penn State Coach James Franklin

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