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Big Ten Breakdown 2012: Penn State Nittany Lions, Part 4, Final Breakdown

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Big Ten Breakdown 2012: Penn State Nittany Lions, Part 4, Final Breakdown
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I began by taking a broad overview of the Penn State program, what it has done over the last five years and what that might tell us about what the Nits will do this season.

Last week, I scanned the 2012 Penn State offense and how it projects.

Last week, I looked at the 2012 Penn State defense and how it is shaping up.

This week, I'll look at the Nittany Lions' specialists, recruiting class and schedule, and I'll give a final breakdown and my prediction for Penn State in 2012.

 

Specialists

After a disastrous start to 2011 in the place-kicking department—two different players, one of whom was and is on scholarship, went 2-for-7 on field-goal attempts—then-sophomore punter Anthony Fera took over, doing triple duty, and he didn't disappoint.

Individually, Fera nailed 82.4 percent of 17 attempts, had the second-highest official punting average in the league with 41.95 yards-per-punt and drilled 22.22 percent of his kickoffs for touchbacks.

Along with other depth issues, Penn State fans have to pray for the health of Anthony Fera's leg.

The punt-return game is in good hands with Justin Brown, who was fourth in the conference in 2011 with 8.15 yards-per-return.

Nevertheless, the kickoff return situation is wide open with the graduation of Chaz Powell. However, the cupboard isn't empty as cornerback Adrian Amos and receiver Devon Smith both have collegiate kick-return experience.

Big Ten Position Group Ranking: Three

 

2012 Recruiting Class

Rivals ranked Penn State's 2012 recruiting class seventh in the Big Ten. Scout named it sixth.

This is low for a typical PSU class, and the Nits did lose a few high-profile recruits due to the ongoing effects of the Sandusky child molestation case. Nevertheless, all things considered, Bill O'Brien has done a good job bringing in recruits despite the maelstrom that continues to plague Happy Valley.

In 2012, Penn State signed 19 players. The class was heavy on defensive linemen with five.

Westville, New Jersey's Jamil Pollard could come right in and fill out the depth chart at strong-side defensive end or defensive tackle. Pollard chose PSU over 'Bama, Florida and Iowa. Rivals lists him at 6'5", 280 pounds, so he is at playing weight.

Plymouth, Massachusetts wide receiver Eugene Lewis could also push for immediate playing time. While depth isn't an issue at receiver, O'Brien has said his goal is to spread the ball around and get it into the hands of his playmakers. If Lewis can prove dangerous with the ball in his hands, O'Brien will put him out there.

Finally, defensive back is an area of pressing need for the Nits. Look for at least two players to burn their redshirts in the secondary this year.

The most likely player is Malik Golden of Cheshire, Connecticut. Rivals lists him as an athlete while Scout has him as a receiver. Given Penn State's issues in the defensive backfield and the fact that it signed three players that will definitely come into camp as receivers, I'd be surprised if Golden isn't on the defensive side of the ball.

 

Schedule

A pound sign—#—indicates must-win for Penn State.

An exclamation point—!—indicates a probable loss.

A dollar sign—$—indicates a swing game.

 

09/01: Ohio Bobcats $

09/08: at Virginia Cavaliers $

09/15: Navy Midshipmen #

09/22: Temple Owls #

09/29: At Illinois Fighting Illini $

10/06: Northwestern Wildcats #

10/13: OPEN

10/20: At Iowa Hawkeyes $

10/27: Ohio State Buckeyes !

11/03: At Purdue Boilermakers $

11/10: At Nebraska Cornhuskers !

11/17: Indiana Hoosiers #

11/24: Wisconsin Badgers !

 

Best-Case Scenario

8-4

In order for this to happen, Penn State needs:

  • A clean bill of health for the entire year. PSU can afford a scrape or two, but depth is nominal at multiple positions. The O-line, Silas Redd, defensive end, the secondary—one major, season-ending injury in any of those areas and Penn State will be in trouble.
  • Matt McGloin to flourish in the new offense and with the new coaching staff. It is no secret that the former Penn State coaches did their quarterbacks few favors. In this respect, a new staff was exactly what the quarterbacks needed. If McGloin can become even respectable, the PSU offense will take steps forward.
  • The offensive line to gel immediately. As with the quarterbacks, it was arguable what favors the former staff did the O-line. McGloin will have some breathing room if the line can come together and get the running game going. 

 

Worst-Case Scenario

4-8

In order for this to happen, Penn State must have:

  • Injury problems galore. As detailed above, PSU's depth is negligible. The Nits need to stay healthy in order to be successful.
  • Offensive line issues. The burden of the offense will be on Matt McGloin's shoulders if the line can't come together. That is not a pleasant thought.
  • The defense to have trouble adjusting to the new, aggressive schemes. Penn State has had the same defensive philosophy for over four decades. It's not that easy to switch gears. This will be a defense-dominant team; the better the defense is, the more wins. There will be big problems if the defense has trouble with the new scheme.

 

The Season Will Be a Success If...

Penn State is bowl-eligible.

I realize that may sound extreme. After all, it's not as if PSU plays 'Bama in out-of-conference (OOC) play.

That's true, but the out-of-conference schedule is much tougher than it appears. 

Virginia is coming off an eight-win season; while the Cavs won't be as good as last year, the game is on the road, and PSU will have to be careful.

Even more surprising is Ohio. The Bobcats are one of the most experienced teams in the country, a potential top-25 team. Ohio is most pundits' favorite to win the MAC's Eastern Division and many pundits' favorite to win the conference.

Yes, in most years even a top MAC team doesn't have a chance of topping PSU in Beaver Stadium—Joe Pa's only loss to a MAC team was to Toledo in 2000—but this isn't a normal year.

In conference, Penn State misses both Michigan and Michigan State, which is good, but most of the Nits' swing games are on the road.

Again, in most years, even with minimal experience, PSU would pull out at least seven wins with this schedule.

But this isn't most years.

For these reasons, Bill O'Brien can call his first season successful if the Nits achieve bowl eligibility.

 

My Prediction

Even if the current Penn State disgrace had never happened, even if Joe Paterno had been able to leave in a dignified manner, even if the coaching search hadn't been so rocky and even if the transition from Paterno's brand of football to O'Brien's didn't look so laden with issues, I would still call 2012 a rebuilding year for PSU.

That being so, all of the aforementioned issues are a reality. Penn State also has to answer for its continuing poor quarterback play, one of the least experienced offensive lines in the country and paper-thin depth at multiple positions. This last issue became even more glaring (via The Philadelphia Inquirer) with last week's departure of co-starting cornerback Derrick Thomas.

I am torn, but I don't see Penn State getting through the out-of-conference schedule unscathed. In fact, I could see them losing to Ohio, Virginia, Navy and/or Big East-uh-stalwart Temple, though the Nits are at an advantage in that all of their OOC opponents are rush-first offenses.

Nevertheless, I have Penn State losing one of the OOC games (likely to Virginia and its two quality quarterbacks), and with a 2-6 conference record—wins over Indiana and Northwestern—the Nits are left at 5-7 and out of a bowl game for the first time since 2004.

Unfortunately for PSU fans, quality linebacker play and a top-notch running back won't be enough to push their team through this year.

 

Check out past installments of 2012 Big Ten Breakdown, beginning with the most recent, the Purdue Boilermakers.

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