Penn State Nittany Lions Pouncing on Weaker Big Ten

Tim MusserContributor ISeptember 22, 2008

It was the general consensus among forecasters that the Penn State Nittany Lions were going to finish fourth in the Big Ten following Illinois, Wisconsin, and a talent-laden Ohio State team that boasted the nation's top incoming freshman in Terrelle Pryor, one of the nation's top returning linebackers in James Laurinaitis, and a Heisman hopeful in running back Chris "Beanie" Wells.

Four weeks into the season, the conference picture appears to be more of a two-horse race pitting Penn State against Wisconsin for the conference crown, with Illinois following closely behind.

Ohio State is falling to a probable third or fourth place finish following their blowout loss to USC and poor performances against Ohio and Troy following the injury to Wells' foot in their opening win over Youngstown State.

Though the Lions haven't played any ranked teams yet, they have been very impressive thus far on both sides of the ball and have won their games by an average score of 52.8 to 10.

For the first time since the 1994 Rose Bowl team, which featured three first round draft picks, the Lions have an offense as exciting as their talent-laden defense.

Led by their veteran receiving corps featuring senior captain Derrick Williams and fellow seniors Deon Butler and Jordan Norwood, the Nittany Lions have amassed 1,057 yards in the air and 10 touchdowns.

While the lofty expectations on the receiving corps are being met, there was a big question mark on who the quarterback would be and how he would fare given the little playing time he had received in years past.

Daryll Clark has started all four games for the Nittany Lions and has looked rather impressive, going 48 for 78 for 715 yards and seven touchdowns with only one interception, all the while garnering far fewer jeers from the crowd than Anthony Morelli did last season.

Pat Devlin has also looked good under center, as he has completed 51.4 percent of his passes (18-35) and gathered 260 yards and two touchdowns to his credit.

The rushing game has been up to speed as Evan Royster returned for his sophomore season as the starter. Royster should begin to attain some national attention if he keeps his numbers up, as he has amassed 385 yards on the ground and averages a staggering 8.1 yards per carry.  He is well on his way to a 1,000-yard rushing season.

Redshirt freshman Stephfon Green showed that he is also a valuable weapon for the Nittany Lions as he trails Royster by less than 100 yards rushing with 292 yards, averaging an impressive 7.3 yards per carry.

All of this comes behind a veteran offensive line, led by senior captain A.Q. Shipley, which contains three seniors, a junior, and sophomore Stefen Wisniewski.

The defense, while appearing not as strong as past years, has been very strong against the rush, as they will need to be to keep alive Penn State's hopes for a Big Ten title. They will need to keep their defensive line healthy and away from off-field trouble if they hope to stay strong this season.

Aaron Maybin, Josh Gaines, Jared Odrick, and Ollie Ogbu make up the defensive front, which lost much of its depth with the recent allegations against preseason All-American ends junior Maurice Evans and sophomore Abe Koroma.

At linebacker, the Lions took a major hit when they lost returning star and captain Sean Lee to an injury early in the spring. One wouldn't notice it as Tyrell Sales, Bani Gbadyu, and surprise stars Josh Hull and Navorro Bowman have filled in very nicely, with Bowman and Sales leading the team in tackles with 20 and 18 respectively and accounting for the team's two forced fumbles with one apiece.

The secondary is fairly solid but also quite obviously the weakest of the three main areas of the defense. Led by senior safety and captain Anthony Scirrotto, the secondary has finally, it appears, begun to deliver the jaw-rattling blows of defenses past.

However, given a good receiving corps they do appear to be somewhat beaten, which will be an interesting matchup when the Fighting Illini come to town with Arrelious Benn and Juice Williams.

In general, it appears as if Penn State has the tools to win the Big Ten title, but the road will not be easy. They will have to travel to the "Mad House" and the "Horseshoe" in Madison and Columbus respectively, which will more than likely prove to be the two most hostile environments they will see this year.

Hopefully the trip to the Carrier Dome in Syracuse will have helped prepare the Lions' offense for the noise level they will face. It really depends on whether the Nittany Lions who played Oregon State show up or the Nittany Lions who played Temple show up to determine whether they will have a chance in either of the two stadiums.

The Lions will also need to resolve the off-field issues that have been plaguing them the past few seasons and keep their players out of legal troubles.