Big Ten Football Preview: Penn State
Bearing the weight from the heaviest sanctions ever handed down by the NCAA, the 2012 Nittany Lions followed a slow start with a run that included a come-from-behind victory over Northwestern and a game-winning field goal from Sam Ficken to defeat Wisconsin. Held together by a senior class consisting of the likes of Michael Mauti, Gerald Hodges, Jordan Hill and Matt McGloin, Penn State put together a season that will never be forgotten (the 2012 team has already been immortalized in the ring of honor). Those men are now in the NFL leaving many unanswered questions, the most important being: Who will start at quarterback? How will the defense fare with just five returning starters? Who will be the breakout star? Which Sam Ficken will we see in 2013?
Bill O’Brien has yet to name a starting quarterback. Junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson and five-star recruit Christian Hackenberg continue to compete in one of the most intriguing positional battles in college football.
Allen Robinson had the best season for a Penn State receiver since Bobby Engram in 1995, and he looks poised to put up big numbers again. The Biletnikoff Award is within his reach in 2013.
The depth at tight end has circulated rumors of four tight end sets in Happy Valley which would be a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses. Jesse James and Kyle Carter will benefit most this year, and, the pair is likely to serve as a collective security blanket for an inexperienced quarterback, whether it’s Ferguson or Hackenberg.
Zach Zwinak rushed for 1000 yards in 2012 despite carrying the ball a total of three times in as many weeks to start the season. He rushed for 100 yards or more in every game in which he tallied at least nineteen carries. Zwinak will rush for at least 1100 yards this season as he receives the majority of the carries from the outset.
The 2013 Nittany Lions will not look nearly as similar as last year’s squad on the defensive side, returning only five starters. However, don’t expect this defense to struggle just because of lack of experience. A few players have the potential to have breakout seasons for the Nittany Lions; most notably DE Deion Barnes and LB Nyeem Wartman.
Deion Barnes, a redshirt sophomore, was a consensus Freshman All-American in 2012 after starting eight games. He finished in the top-10 in the Big Ten in sacks and forced fumbles, as well as finishing 14th in tackles for loss. This season, expect Barnes to take on a greater leadership role on the defensive line as well as putting up bigger numbers. Bold prediction: Barnes makes the First Team All-Big Ten on defense.
Nyeem Wartman faces the daunting task of replacing Gerald Hodges on the outside, but in 2012 he proved his worth in just one game before suffering a season-ending knee injury. The redshirt freshman blocked a punt against Ohio before spraining his knee against Virginia the following week. Wartman’s size (he’s listed as 6-foot-1, 241 pounds) is almost identical to that of Michael Mauti. He has tremendous athletic ability and football instincts to make him the player to watch on defense in 2013.
Bill O’Brien will miss Stephon Morris in the secondary, but veterans Adrian Amos and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong will be reliable in downfield coverage. Overall, the defense has big shoes to fill. An inexperienced defense might suffer some hiccups in the beginning of the season, but the kinks will be worked out by the time Big Ten play commences.
Penn State’s nonconference schedule is not very intimidating. Their toughest game before entering Big Ten play is the season opener against Syracuse. The Nittany Lions will be defeated by Michigan, Ohio State, and Nebraska. For the second consecutive year, Penn State will end their season with a victory over Wisconsin. This year’s meeting will be in Madison, but the Nittany Lions, in a second year under Bill O’Brien, will prevail.
John Lewis is a sophomore majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.