Big Ten Preview: Penn State

First of all, no, I don't have any idea if this is Joe Paterno's last season or not. How can I know if JoePa himself doesn't know? What I do know is that whatever Paterno is doing, it's working. Sort of. The Nittany Lions were an agrarian army awfully arrayed just four seasons ago, and the hoots of derision coming from all corners of the college football world were threatening to eclipse all of Paterno's past accomplishments. Now the Nits have won three straight bowl games and are all but guaranteed to have a shot at making it four in a row.

Second of all, yes, the Lions have had their share of off-the-field problems lately. That's why an Iowa fan is writing this preview. Looking at Penn State football right now requires the ability to gloss over all the extracurricular activities, and we Iowa fans are about the only group of fans who can't say squat about the Nitty Kitties' rap sheet. Also, we want to thank them for taking the Outside The Lines bullet for us. So, thanks!

Now, on to the football.


Two words: de-fense. It is the sine qua non of Penn State football, the one thing the Beaver Stadium faithful have always been able to count on even when the offensive cupboard was bare. (Which it has been quite a bit lately, as anyone who remembers this game will tell you.) Penn State returns nine starters from last year's defense, which ranked second in the conference and ninth nationally.

It's not like the offensive cupboard actually is bare, either. The offensive line is one of the best and most experienced squads in all college football. They're so good JoePa himself could probably run for 80 yards a game behind them. Derrick Williams would be welcome to join almost any receiving corps in the country as well.

Two words: de-fense. The linebacking corps at Linebacker U took a big hit when Dan Connor graduated and Sean Lee blew out a knee in spring practice. That leaves the Nits with but a single returning starter at that position. Likewise, the two guys who were expected to anchor the center of the line, tackles Phillip Taylor and Chris Baker, were both kicked off the team last week. And, while all four starters return in the secondary, that unit was no better than average last season. Penn State has always been able to count on its defense, but this year, they might not have enough to bail out the offense if it sputters.

Speaking of the offense, who's going to throw the ball? Daryll Clark, who was pretty good in limited action during the Alamo Bowl, takes over for Anthony Morelli. He may continue to be pretty good, but who knows? Evan Royster may be capable of mounting a credible rushing attack on his own, but again, who knows? There are a lot of unknowns in the Penn State offense. Couple those unknowns with the unknowns on the defense and, well, that's a lot of unknowns, isn't it?

Throw, throw, throw, early and often. It's rare to find an exploitable weakness in the Penn State defense, but here it is. Take advantage of the inexperience in the middle of the line and the (relatively) weak secondary, force them to drop a backer into coverage, and open up the the running lanes by making Tom Bradley scared to death of all the 10- to 15-yard completions you're making.

Allow the pass but stuff the run. Rush Daryll Clark and play man coverage on his receivers. Keep Evan Royster close to the line of scrimmage. Clark has shown much promise, but usually when you force a mobile quarterback to throw, you get a blizzard of overthrows, sacks, and INTs.

The Nits are not quite good enough to make a run at the conference title. They play at Columbus on October 25, and unless they play completely out of their heads, they're not coming home with a win. Can they finish second and maybe even get to the Rose Bowl (or some other BCS bowl)? Sure, but they'll have to be perfect in conference play outside of the OSU game. That, unfortunately doesn't seem likely to me. Penn State fans should expect eight to ten wins and something along the lines of the Outback or Capital One bowls.

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