After a (somewhat) surprising loss Saturday to Ohio, Penn State has been forced to regroup and get ready for Virginia.
Although Saturday was a rough first game for new head coach Bill O’Brien, he wasn’t the only person in State College seeing their first taste of college football in Happy Valley.
The Nittany Lion’s starting roster was full of freshmen and players with little to no playing experience at the college level.
With a long season ahead, it is tough to see Penn State having a winning record.
But getting over .500 is possible for the Lions from State College.
There are a few players for Penn State that will make or break the Nittany Lions’ season.
If these players can’t emerge as leaders both on and off the field, Bill O’Brien’s Lions will struggle.
Here are five players that hold the key to Penn State’s season.
At the beginning of the summer, Bill O’Brien quickly ended all speculation on who Penn State's starting quarterback was going to be.
Matt McGloin was going to lead the Lions through one of the darkest hours in the program’s history.
A fifth year senior, McGloin is one of the leaders on this team. Love him or hate him, McGloin is a feisty player whose play can best be described as streaky.
Although O’Brien said in his press conference earlier this week that the Nittany Lions’ run game needs to reappear, it’s obvious that McGloin is going to be throwing the ball this season more than ever.
If McGloin can make good decisions (which he hasn’t always been known for) and is able to run O’Brien’s offense smoothly, Penn State has a chance to see success on the offensive end.
After the departure of Silas Redd to USC, Bill Belton emerged as Penn State’s main offensive threat.
Belton, who is only a sophomore, played wide receiver last year, while also lining up in the wildcat. This year, he is Penn State’s factor back and the offense will live and die this season with him.
It was obvious in last Saturday’s game.
Along with 114 all-purpose yards, Belton scored one of the two touchdowns for the Nittany Lions.
When Belton came out with an injury, Penn State’s offense took a turn for the worse.
Belton holds the key to the Penn State offense this year. If he can stay healthy, the Lions have a chance to win a few games.
But that’s a big if.
During Saturday’s game, Gerald Hodges returned the opening kickoff for 12 yards.
Yes, Gerald Hodges, Penn State’s starting linebacker was back returning kicks.
Although a botched punt return and a nagging shin injury forced O’Brien to relieve Hodges of his kick return duties, the fact that Hodges was even returning kicks shows a glimpse of his athleticism. At 6’2" and 237 pounds, Hodges is a solid NFL prospect with sub 4.5 40-yard dash speed.
But Hodges draft stock only adds to his importance to the Penn State defense.
In the loss to Ohio, Hodges had 11 tackles to add to his presence returning kicks. Last year, Hodges led the team with 106 tackles (60 solo), and he’s looking to lead the defense again this year.
At the notoriously named “Linebacker U”, Hodges is a key to Penn State winning games this season.
Michael Mauti has been a symbol of resiliency at Penn State. A fifth-year senior, Mauti has suffered two season-ending ACL injuries since 2009.
In a season where Penn State needs tough players to weather an offseason marred by scandal, suspension and transfers, Michael Mauti has been one of Penn State’s undisputed leaders.
Mauti has been a solid linebacker for Penn State the past two years, but hasn’t been able to stay healthy. In only four games last season, he recorded 21 tackles for the Lions.
Where Mauti really shines, however, is in the huddle. He is one of the few players that can get the team to rally around him and make the best of a bad situation.
Mauti has been around college football for five years, and acts as not only a leader off the field but a mentor to the young players being thrown into the fire.
At the beginning of the season, Penn State needed a player to step up and be a vocal leader.
Michael Mauti is that player.
Butterworth replaces Fera (above) as Penn State's most experienced kicker.
It may seem somewhat ridiculous to choose a kicker as a key to Penn State’s season, but considering who he’s stepping in for it becomes more and more obvious.
The past few seasons, Anthony Fera was Penn State’s kicking game. He did it all, kicking field goals, punts and kickoffs.
But over the offseason, Fera transferred to Texas (and recently injured his groin ironically), leaving Penn State’s kicking game in question.
Special teams can make or break a game. A bad punt or a missed field goal can decide the outcome of a game.
Over the past two seasons, Butterworth has only punted in six games with a 38.5-yard punt average last season.
If Penn State’s loss Saturday was any indicator of how the season will play out, Penn State will be punting.
If Butterworth is able to shine in the kicking game and give the Nittany Lions good field position on defense, it will be a big boost to the team. He needs to have a good year. If not, special teams may be the cause of a disastrous season.