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1. They improved
It just takes two words to describe the incredible job Bill O'Brien did in his first year as Penn State's head coach. After one of the most awkward, strange, turbulent, and sad coaching transitions of all time, after the NCAA waylaid the program with crippling sanctions, after players were given limitless ability to flee for another team, after the product on the field was overshadowed for months by sub-human crimes committed by a former defensive coordinator ... they improved.
O'Brien's Nittany Lions not only held steady and not only didn't completely collapse; their F/+ ranking actually increased from 31st to 25th. And with no promise of postseason play on the horizon, O'Brien then went out and inked a pretty strong recruiting class as well.
My goodness, give that man whatever contract he wants.
It was almost enough that O'Brien wanted the job in the first place. Joe Paterno's title changed from "Penn State assistant" to "Penn State head coach" in 1966, and he held court for the next 46 seasons. He won at least 10 games in a season 21 times, he went undefeated five times, and he finished in the AP top three 14 times. Even by the late-1980s, the question of who the hell could or would replace him would randomly creep into the narrative. Penn State was by no means a bad program pre-Paterno -- eight top-25 and two top-10 finishes in the 24 years before he took over -- but he achieved a level of success that nobody could have dreamed. He fended off critics looking for his ouster after a five-year regression (the Nittany Lions went 26-33 from 2000-04), established another mini-peak (11-1 in 2005, 11-2 in both 2008 and 2009), and set the all-time Division I wins record in early November 2011. At 84, he still wasn't talking about retirement, and there was no clear succession plan in place.
By December 2011, Paterno had been fired for his role in failing to stop or handle former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky's sexual abuse of young boys. In January 2012, Paterno passed away from lung cancer complications. And in July 2012, the NCAA not only crushed the program (lengthy postseason ban, major scholarship reductions) but, in particularly punitive fashion, vacated enough wins to move Paterno down the all-time list. Eighteen players transferred, leaving O'Brien, hired in early January, with a roster that had talent but paper-thin depth.
Somehow, O'Brien managed the roster with aplomb. A thin offense, not a strength of the later Paterno years, not only held steady but improved dramatically, from 89th to 47th in Off. F/+. The defense regressed, but only from ninth to 19th in Def. F/+. Tough, unlucky early losses to Ohio and Virginia put a ceiling on the win total, but the Nittany Lions were quite good last year. And O'Brien might deserve Coach of the Decade status just for that.
2. It doesn't take long to notice depth issues
The nature of the NCAA sanctions dictate that this job won't get easier for a while. In fact, it may get harder.
Penn State doesn't return a quarterback who took a single snap last season. Only two of last year's top four running backs return, and six offensive linemen from last season's two-deep (three with starting experience, including an all-conference center) are gone. The top tacklers at defensive end, defensive tackle, cornerback, and linebacker are gone. There is depth and general quality in the receiving corps and on the defensive line, but Penn State could be just a couple of key injuries away from playing guys with either no experience or no scholarship.
If the injury bug stays away, and if no more players transfer for the foreseeable future, Penn State could hold on, continue cranking out a quality product, and serve as one hell of a Big Ten spoiler. But that's something you really can't control. You just have to hold your breath.
2012 Schedule & Results
|Record: 8-4 | Adj. Record: 9-3 | Final F/+ Rk: 25|
|Date||Opponent||Score||W-L||Adj. Score||Adj. W-L|
|1-Sep||Ohio||14-24||L||26.8 - 29.7||L|
|8-Sep||at Virginia||16-17||L||17.5 - 24.1||L|
|15-Sep||Navy||34-7||W||33.3 - 17.9||W|
|22-Sep||Temple||24-13||W||30.1 - 21.8||W|
|29-Sep||at Illinois||35-7||W||27.8 - 31.7||L|
|6-Oct||Northwestern||39-28||W||25.7 - 19.8||W|
|20-Oct||at Iowa||38-14||W||28.8 - 16.8||W|
|27-Oct||Ohio State||23-35||L||24.0 - 22.8||W|
|3-Nov||at Purdue||34-9||W||37.4 - 18.7||W|
|10-Nov||at Nebraska||23-32||L||30.8 - 26.4||W|
|17-Nov||Indiana||45-22||W||34.1 - 26.8||W|
|24-Nov||Wisconsin||24-21||W||26.6 - 21.8||W|
|Points Per Game||29.1||63||19.1||16|
|Adj. Points Per Game||28.6||61||23.2||22|
3. From good to better
If you've got talent but shaky depth, one would assume you'd be at your best early in the season, then slowly slide as the normal attrition takes its toll. Not so. Penn State was decent in September, the defense improved in October, and the offense surged in November.
Adj. Points per Game (first 5 games): PSU 27.1, Opponent 25.0 (plus-2.1)
Adj. Points per Game (next 3 games): PSU 26.2, Opponent 19.8 (plus-6.4)
Adj. Points per game (last 4 games): PSU 32.2, Opponent 23.4 (plus-8.8)
With only decent talent at quarterback and receiver and no explosiveness at running back, O'Brien, formerly the New England Patriots' offensive coordinator, figured out how to move the ball. And the remnants of the Paterno defense, with Ted Roof pulling the strings, stayed solid enough.
Roof is now at Georgia Tech, and John Butler, last year's cornerbacks coach, is now in charge on D. The offense ... well, the offense will be dictated by who's taking snaps. And don't ask who that might be just yet.
|Q1 Rk||62||1st Down Rk||89|
|Q2 Rk||62||2nd Down Rk||67|
|Q3 Rk||72||3rd Down Rk||41|
Note: players in bold below are 2013 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Tyler Ferguson||6'3, 213||So.||** (5.4)|
|Christian Hackenberg||6'4, 212||Fr.||***** (6.1)|
4. Hello, New Guy
In Tyler Ferguson's last game, his College of the Sequoias squad lost to Fresno, 31-0; he completed 11 of 24 passes for 125 yards and a pick. For the season, he completed 56 percent of his passes for 2,614 yards and averaged 5.6 yards per pass attempt (including sacks). He was committed to Houston before receiving the Penn State offer.
In Christian Hackenberg's last game, his Fork Union Military School squad fell to Lynchburg Liberty Christian, 35-14. He completed 16 of 30 passes for 188 yards, two scores and a pick. For the season, he completed 54 percent of his passes for 2,144 yards. He averaged 7.4 yards per pass (before sacks) and rushed for 436 yards. His production was meager, but he was a camp star and ended up with a five-star designation from Rivals.com, the No. 2 pro-style quarterback in the class and the No. 24 player overall. According to ESPN, he "must continue to show he can consistently work through progressions and not have mental lapses with bad throws into coverage. He is inconsistent in this area."
Here's the word from the head of SB Nation's recruiting branch, Bud Elliott:
All of Hackenberg's physical traits are college-ready. His arm is one of the strongest in the class of 2013. He has the build to take the pounding that comes with playing quarterback in a major conference. And while he is a pocket quarterback, he has solid mobility relative to his size.
Seeing Hackenberg in person, I was impressed with his ability to fit the ball in tight spaces, and drop it over defenders with touch. I can't comment as much on his mental ability as it relates to football, but he was by far the best among the quarterbacks during the Under Armour All-American Game week, and in speaking with him, he seemed like a bright, mature player. I felt Hackenberg was the best quarterback in the class of 2013.
One of these two players will be Penn State's starting quarterback. There are basically no other options.
Hackenberg obviously has ridiculous physical potential but no experience, and his stats suggest (while acknowledging that his supporting cast had a role in his stats) that his decision-making may still have some holes; Ferguson has only marginal experience, and his stats were nothing impressive either (same caveat). That O'Brien and quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher were able to turn Matt McGloin into a 60-percent passer with a nearly 5-to-1 TD-to-INT ratio is obviously a good sign, but how quickly can they turn this year's starter into something competent and interesting?
|Zach Zwinak||RB||6'1, 240||Jr.||**** (5.8)||203||1,000||4.9||3.5||6||-0.1|
|Bill Belton||RB||5'10, 205||Jr.||**** (5.8)||60||258||4.3||2.6||3||-1.6|
|Akeel Lynch||RB||6'0, 214||RSFr.||*** (5.7)|
|Allen Robinson||WR||6'3, 211||Jr.||*** (5.7)||126||77||1018||61.1%||8.1||28.7%||64.3%||8.1||133.3|
|Brandon Moseby-Felder||WR||6'2, 199||Sr.||*** (5.7)||63||31||437||49.2%||6.9||14.4%||58.7%||7.0||57.2|
|Kyle Carter||TE||6'3, 244||So.||** (5.4)||52||36||453||69.2%||8.7||11.8%||55.8%||8.7||59.3|
|Matt Lehman||TE||6'6, 260||Sr.||NR||36||24||296||66.7%||8.2||8.2%||75.0%||8.2||38.8|
|Zach Zwinak||RB||6'1, 240||Jr.||**** (5.8)||28||20||177||71.4%||6.3||6.4%||50.0%||5.8||23.2|
|Alex Kenney||WR||6'0, 194||Jr.||**** (5.8)||27||17||172||63.0%||6.4||6.2%||33.3%||5.5||22.5|
|Jesse James||TE||6'7, 249||So.||*** (5.6)||25||15||276||60.0%||11.0||5.7%||60.0%||11.0||36.1|
|Bill Belton||RB||5'10, 205||Jr.||**** (5.8)||13||9||50||69.2%||3.8||3.0%||46.2%||3.7||6.5|
|Eugene Lewis||WR||6'1, 201||RSFr.||**** (5.9)|
|Brent Wilkerson||TE||6'3, 245||RSFr.||*** (5.7)|
|Adam Breneman||TE||6'5, 228||Fr.||**** (6.0)|
|DaeSean Hamilton||WR||6'0, 182||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
5. No injuries, please
If either Hackenberg or Ferguson gets hurt, and the other one stinks ... if either Zach Zwinak or Bill Belton (who missed four games last year) gets hurt ... if basically any linemen get hurt (and linemen often get hurt) ... this house of cards comes tumbling down. Only the receiving corps seems deep enough to handle some attrition, but even that's a shaky statement: There are only three returning receivers (and three tight ends) who were targeted more than 10 times last year.
O'Brien showed at New England that he has no qualms with using tight ends as much as they prove worthy; well, he has a pretty impressive threesome in Kyle Carter, Matt Lehman, and Jesse James, and four-star freshman Adam Breneman could demand early playing time as well. Carter, Lehman and James combined to average a healthy 9.1 yards per target last year, much better than the three returning receivers (7.5).
The receiving corps has a solid possession-plus receiver in Allen Robinson, an all-or-nothing guy in Brandon Moseby-Felder, and possession guy Alex Kenney. I call Robinson "possession-plus" because while he was mostly a possession guy, he had his explosive moments against bad defenses -- he caught 15 passes for 333 yards (22.2 per catch) and six touchdowns against Navy and Indiana and caught 62 for 685 (11.0) and five touchdowns the rest of the year. Moseby-Felder had nearly one-third of his season yardage in one game, a six-catch, 129-yard performance against Purdue.
Allen Robinson. Rich Barnes, US Presswire.
|Matt Stankiewitch||C||27 career starts; 2012 1st All-Big Ten|
|John Urschel||RG||6'3, 307||Sr.||** (5.2)||12 career starts; 2012 1st All-Big Ten|
|Mike Farrell||RT||13 career starts|
|Miles Dieffenbach||LG||6'3, 297||Jr.||**** (5.8)||12 career starts|
|Donovan Smith||LT||6'5, 327||So.||**** (5.8)||9 career starts|
|Adam Gress||RT||6'6, 317||Sr.||*** (5.5)||3 career starts|
|Ty Howle||LG||6'0, 292||Sr.||*** (5.7)|
|Eric Shrive||RG||6'6, 317||Sr.||**** (6.0)|
|Angelo Mangiro||LG||6'3, 303||So.||*** (5.7)|
|Anthony Alosi||LG||6'4, 280||So.||*** (5.6)|
|Garry Gilliam||OT||6'6, 305||Jr.||** (5.4)|
|Brendan Mahon||OL||6'5, 315||Fr.||**** (6.0)|
|Andrew Nelson||OL||6'5, 265||Fr.||*** (5.6)|
6. Mac MacWhorter did one hell of a job
After nearly a decade in Austin, Mac MacWhorter was part of the 2010 exodus, Texas head coach Mack Brown's attempt to breathe new life into a wretched offense. And perhaps that was fair. Despite all the four-star talent in the world, Texas' Adj. Line Yardage rankings had slipped from second in 2005, to 30th in 2006, to 44th in 2007, to 62nd in 2008, to 70th in 2009, to 80th in 2010. And the Longhorns' Adj. Sack Rate hadn't ranked higher than 40th since 2006.
So maybe MacWhorter just needed a year off. O'Brien brought him back into coaching last year, and wow, did he have a positive effect. He inherited a line with just one returning starter (center Matt Stankiewitch) and managed to pull off top-50 rankings in both run and pass blocking. The PSU line had the most successful short-yardage rankings in the country and one of the best stuff rates (preventing negative plays on the ground). Big running back Zach Zwinak probably had something to do with both the positive stuff rates and negative opportunity rates (getting the back at least five yards downfield, basically). He is in no way quick, but he's a good fall-forward back who lacks explosiveness but bounces off enough tacklers to prevent disaster in the backfield -- he's a lot like Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell in that regard.
There's a little more rebuilding to do here this year, but MacWhorter still inherits more experience this time around. All-conference guard John Urschel is back, and left tackle Donovan Smith could be all-conference himself by 2014.
|Q1 Rk||18||1st Down Rk||14|
|Q2 Rk||9||2nd Down Rk||46|
|Q3 Rk||50||3rd Down Rk||60|
7. Close the door
On standard downs -- first downs, second-and-medium or -short, third-and-short -- Penn State's defense was as good as ever in 2012. Ends Deion Barnes, Sean Stanley, and Anthony Zettel were solid at generating pass pressure in non-blitz situations, the line was strong in short yardage, and the linebackers had occasional Linebacker U resemblance.
The leaks appeared on passing downs, however. PSU couldn't get to the quarterback and showed quite a bit of passivity in its cornerback play, okay with allowing an eight-yard pass on third-and-8 instead of risking a 30-yard completion. The Nittany Lions just couldn't quite close the door on drives, and it especially hurt them in losses to Nebraska (9-for-18 on third downs) and Ohio State (8-for-16). There's still plenty of talent here, and it will be interesting to see if or how John Butler runs the defense any differently once an opponent is leveraged into second- or third-and-long.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Deion Barnes||DE||6'4, 249||So.||**** (5.8)||12||20.0||3.1%||10||6||0||1||3||0|
|DaQuan Jones||DT||6'3, 318||Sr.||*** (5.7)||12||15.0||2.3%||2||0.5||0||1||0||1|
|Anthony Zettel||DE||6'4, 257||So.||**** (5.9)||12||12.5||1.9%||4||4||0||2||0||0|
|C.J. Olaniyan||DE||6'3, 251||Jr.||**** (5.8)||10||10.5||1.6%||1||1||0||2||0||0|
|Kyle Baublitz||DT||6'5, 286||Jr.||**** (5.8)||6||2.5||0.4%||1||1||0||0||0||0|
|Brad Bars||DE||6'3, 248||Jr.||** (5.4)||8||1.0||0.2%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Brian Gaia||DT||6'3, 279||RSFr.||*** (5.7)|
|Austin Johnson||DT||6'4, 297||RSFr.||*** (5.5)|
|Garrett Sickels||DE||6'4, 245||Fr.||**** (5.9)|
|Curtis Cothran||DE||6'5, 225||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Glenn Carson||MLB||6'3, 240||Sr.||**** (5.8)||12||62.5||9.6%||3||1||0||3||0||0|
|Mike Hull||OLB||6'0, 226||Jr.||**** (5.9)||12||46.0||7.1%||5||4||1||4||0||2|
|Ben Kline||OLB||6'2, 227||So.||*** (5.7)||12||13.5||2.1%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Nyeem Wartman||LB||6'1, 240||RSFr.||*** (5.7)||2||1.0||0.2%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Brandon Bell||LB||6'1, 220||Fr.||*** (5.6)|
8. That "D" word again
Deion Barnes is good, and Anthony Zettel was a pretty strong pass-rush specialist as a redshirt freshman (with a body that suggests he could be an every-down presence as well). Glenn Carson is solid in the middle, and Mike Hull was really the only successful blitzing linebacker last year. There are former four-star recruits waiting in the wings, and there is plenty to like about this front seven.
But especially at linebacker, there are barely enough pieces to fill out an interesting two-deep. Again, PSU is just an injury or two away from having to put freshmen or walk-ons on display. Maybe that works out; usually it doesn't.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Adrian Amos||CB||6'0, 211||Jr.||*** (5.5)||12||37.5||5.8%||2.5||0.5||2||3||0||0|
|Malcolm Willis||FS||5'11, 213||Sr.||*** (5.5)||10||36.0||5.5%||0||0||0||2||0||1|
|Stephen Obeng-Agyapong||SS||5'10, 207||Sr.||*** (5.5)||12||31.0||4.8%||2.5||0.5||0||4||1||1|
|Da'Quan Davis||CB||5'10, 164||So.||** (5.4)||11||4.0||0.6%||0||0||0||3||0||1|
|Ryan Keiser||FS||6'1, 205||Jr.||NR||12||4.0||0.6%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Jesse Della Valle||S||6'1, 194||Jr.||NR||12||4.0||0.6%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Jordan Lucas||S||6'0, 192||So.||*** (5.5)||12||1.0||0.2%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Trevor Williams||S||6'1, 189||So.||*** (5.5)|
|Neiko Robinson||DB||6'0, 173||Fr.||*** (5.6)|
9. Potential stability in the secondary
At the very least, the secondary has a full second string. Granted, two of the five defensive backs who made more than just 5.0 tackles last year are gone, but the safety position is well-stocked, corner Adrian Amos is solid, and Da'Quan Davis has me intrigued from a stats perspective. He broke up three passes while making just four tackles, which puts him in the same category as Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste: either a ferocious on-ball defender or a horrific tackler. Or both.
The key issue with this year's defense, again (other than injuries, which hover over everything), is passing downs. Will Butler play a little more aggressively? If so, will there be bigger problems with big plays? There's talent throughout this starting 11, but can the Nittany Lions shut things down more effectively than they did last year? Because the offense might need a little extra help.
|Alex Butterworth||5'10, 204||Sr.||51||37.4||2||19||19||74.5%|
|Sam Ficken||6'2, 172||Jr.||68||61.9||27||39.7%|
|Alex Butterworth||5'10, 204||Sr.||1||37||0||0.0%|
|Sam Ficken||6'2, 172||Jr.||39-41||14-17||82.4%||0-4||0.0%|
|Bill Belton||KR||5'10, 199||Jr.||9||15.6||0|
|Jesse Della Valle||KR||6'1, 194||Jr.||6||25.2||0|
|Jesse Della Valle||PR||6'1, 194||Jr.||15||7.6||0|
|Special Teams F/+||94|
|Field Goal Pct||75|
|Kick Returns Avg||116|
|Punt Returns Avg||93|
2013 Schedule & Projection Factors
|26-Oct||at Ohio State||10|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||15|
|Two-Year Recruiting Rk||47|
|TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||+9 / +8.8|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||13 (8, 5)|
10. Another challenge
For a team with an NCAA-mandated lack of postseason aspirations, Penn State has a schedule that still allows for goals. There's the old-school, king-of-the-northeast battle with Syracuse at MetLife Stadium to start the season. There's a home slate that includes Michigan and Nebraska -- Penn State can't represent its division in the Big Ten Championship, but it could prevent someone else from doing the same. There are the higher-degree-of-difficulty trips to Ohio State and Wisconsin.
With a top-25 team (like the one O'Brien generated last year), Penn State could certainly go 10-2 in 2013, and bowls or no, that would be an incredible accomplishment, all things considered. But the quarterback situation could lead to some early landmines (Syracuse aside, neither UCF nor Kent State are easy outs, and the trip to Indiana could be sketchy for a team with no offense), and again, you just can't talk about Penn State without fearing what injuries could do. It only took a few injuries to gash USC (another team with scholarship restrictions) last year, and Penn State's situation is at least as bad as the Trojans' and getting worse.
O'Brien is reportedly working on an appeal of the damn-near nuclear sanctions, but he proved last year that he is capable of making the most of whatever roster he's got and whatever situation is created in front of him. We just don't know how dire that situation might end up becoming.