University Park, PA: If someone were to announce a few years ago that in Week 5 of 2008, The Penn State Nittany Lions would be ranked ahead of the great Michigan and Ohio State, would you believe them? Believe it or not, it's not that surprising.
The Lions are 4-0 on the young season, having not been challenged really even once. They are the second highest ranked Big Ten team currently, standing at No. 12 in both the AP and Coaches polls, trailing only the Badgers of Wisconsin.
Suddenly, the Lions look to be a possible longshot at a national title, and a BCS bowl is definitely not out of the question. So let's examine... is it possible the Lions are for real?
Most people would argue that the answer to this is sort of up in the air. After all, the Lions have only played the likes of Coastal Carolina, Oregon State, Syracuse, and Temple. For the purposes of this article though, the answer is yes.
As it stands after four weeks, the Nittany Lions rank sixth in the NCAA in total offense. They rank 25th in passing yards per game and eighth in rushing yards per game. They also are uncharacteristically ranked third in total points. Their offense is cruising.
So can this offensive surge last? I think so. The passing game is led by Daryll Clark, who has the Lions' offense poised to continue this pace. Clark has been able to make throws with relative ease thus far, and with the exception of the first half against Temple last week, he's been very accurate.
Against last year's tougher defenses, like Michigan, Ohio State, and Illinois, then senior quarterback Anthony Morelli ran into trouble against the pass rush, stalling drives with great frequency.
Clark, on the other hand, offers the scrambling ability that has not been seen from a Penn State quarterback since Michael Robinson departed to the NFL. The passing game is also anchored by three great receivers, possibly one of the best receiving corps in the nation.
Senior Derrick Williams has proved to be a playmaker in his Happy Valley career and entered the season fourth on PSU's all-time receiving list. Williams offers great versatility as a downfield receiver, a screen presence, a reverse threat, and of course a dynamic kick returner.
Opposite of Williams is Deon Butler, who will pass Bobby Engram by season's end to be the school's all-time receptions leader. Butler has proven to be a playmaker and is a great threat in the red zone despite only being 5-foot-10.
Third receiver Jordan Norwood is a great complement to the two studs in front of him, and always seems to come up with a clutch catch.
The Lions' running game is anchored by a veteran offensive line. Upperclassmen Dennis Landolt, Gerald Cadogan, Rich Ohrnberger, and Rimington Award candidate A.Q. Shipley round out a great front five. These "big uglies" pave the way for running back Evan Royster, last year's breakout freshman threat.
Royster offers great field vision and has proved to be a workhorse so far this season, averaging almost 100 yards every game. He is complimented by freshman Stephfon Green, who has already emerged as a big-play threat early this season. The running game is definitely strong and is capable of wearing down a team late.
"Ok, so Penn State's offense is impressive... so what? That means nothing without a defense." Hold your horses, my friend.
The Penn State defense proves to be strong this year as well. After all, you don't earn the nickname "Linebacker U" without at least being able to stop somebody here and there. Although this year's Penn State defense sort of takes the "no name" defense kind of feel, they have still played solid thus far.
While linebacker Sean Lee's injury departure will most likely hurt the Lions more as the season progresses, the play of senior safety Anthony Scirrotto has made up for the loss in part with his stellar play. Scirrotto has played well in both the secondary and as a run stopper, acting almost as an extra linebacker.
Scirrotto's secondary mates include Lydell Sargeant, AJ Wallace, and Tony Davis, who all had ups and downs last season. Wallace is probably the most athletic of the group, possessing solid speed and capabilities as a corner.
Sargeant's coverage ability was spotty at best last season, but he is a tremendous open field tackler which minimizes yards after the catch and helps the run defense. Davis is a senior who has played well thus far this season.
The Nittany Lion linebackers are once again above average. As mentioned above, Sean Lee is unable to perform this year; however, others have stepped up this season.
Outside linebacker Tyrell Sales anchors the crew, a senior who has been overshadowed in his PSU career by names like Pozluzny, Connor, and Lee. Junior outside linebacker Bani Gbadyu has also played well so far this season, stopping runs before they start.
The defensive line looks to be the Lions' biggest problem defensively this season. Not because of lack of ability, but because of careless off-field decisions. Maurice Evans was supposed to anchor this year's defensive line as a playmaker upfront, but due to off-field troubles; his status for the rest of the season is unclear.
The same goes for junior DT Abe Koroma whose status is also in the air from the same altercation. Senior Josh Gaines is still around, however, and poised for a solid campaign.
Jared Odrick and Ollie Ogbu could also step up at the tackle position this season. The troubles of the line have not hurt the Lions yet, as they have played with the lead all season. This could be a great flaw in a closer game in the future.
Now that we've analyzed the Lions' team, let's look at their opposition.
A common argument against Penn State is that their schedule is too weak. While this is an argument for a separate article, I feel obligated to make a small comment here.
Assessing their out of conference schedule thus far, CCU was scheduled as a guaranteed home opening win; just about every team does this.
Oregon State was scheduled because they were supposed to be an up and coming team. Unfortunately, they have not progressed. Syracuse is a rivalry game from way back in the day.
PSU alumni still hate Syracuse to this day from back in the Penn State-Big East discussions. Temple is another rivalry game played every year.
The rest of their schedule is necessary Big Ten competition. If you're still knocking the schedule, look at Ohio State, Michigan, and Illinois. Teams like Youngstown State, Ohio, Troy, Miami-Ohio, Toledo, Eastern Illinois, and Louisiana-Lafayette can all be found on their schedules.
Now that that's off my chest, let's look at the Lions' remaining schedule.
Illinois: The Illini started off with an impressive 10-point loss to Mizzou, putting up 42 points in the process. However, their defense was shredded for 52 points. They then beat Eastern Illinois by 20, however they still gave up 21 points to a weak opponent.
Moving forward, they only beat Louisiana-Lafayette by a score of 20-17. A three-point victory over the Ragin Cajuns??? When Saturday Night Football hits Happy Valley in the White House, the Lions take this one.
Purdue: No real concerns here. W.
Wisconsin: Quite possibly the toughest test for the Lions. After all, this is a road game, and those seem to not go so well for Dear Old State. Wisconsin beat Akron considerably and routed Marshall, but played shaky on the road at Fresno State last week.
Let's keep in mind that Fresno kept Rutgers in the game week one and Rutgers just lost to Navy...really? If mistakes are minimal, Lions take this one.
Michigan: Usually, this would probably be a huge paragraph. Not this year. Michigan lost to Utah and got spanked by Notre Dame, and only beat Miami-OH by 10 points. This game is at home for the Lions and an anxious student body gives the Lions the edge. W.
Ohio State: This is the big one. In Columbus. Tressel vs. Joe Pa. Terrelle Pryor's first sight of the Lions since his visit to Happy Valley.
This game is dependent on a few things. Can the Penn State cornerbacks stop Pryor from airing it out? Can the Penn State D-line win the battle of the trenches and get to Beanie Wells? Will Daryll Clark continue to play well and avoid the pass rush?
Can Evan Royster use his vision to avoid James Laurinaitis in the open field? Many things will factor in to this game. However, if the Buckeyes continue to let teams like Ohio and Troy hang around, the Lions have more than a shot.
Unfortunately, I think Columbus is too much for the Lions and Tressel makes great adjustments. Lions lose a close one.
Iowa, Indiana, Michigan State: No worries here. Two of these three are at home, and a hungry offense will want to ensure last year's Michigan State episode does not happen again.
Penn State finishes 11-1 to me. That should be plenty for a BCS bowl.
The Penn State season looks promising. The offense has been stellar thus far and looks like it's going to blow away last year's, which was a problem in almost every game. While the defense isn't flawless, it should be enough to stall offenses and allow the offense to carry them.
While the easiest of the schedule is behind them, the Lions looked poised to finish strong. Illinois and Michigan are big games, but are at home, which greatly benefits the Lions.
Wisconsin is a tough road game, but the Lions should have enough to take it. Ohio State looks to be the only speed bump, but is still a very winnable game.
What's in store for the Penn State Nittany Lions this season cannot be exactly predicted by an undergraduate student for certain, but if there was any certainty this season, it's that the Penn State Nittany Lions could have a very special year.