Big Ten

2010 NCAA Football Preview: Penn St. Nittany Lions

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2009 Record: 11-2 (6-2 in Big Ten)
2009 Bowl: Capital One Bowl (beat LSU 19-17)
Final 2009 AP Ranking: #9
Head Coach: Joe Paterno (394-129-3, 86-50 in Big Ten)
Non-Conference Schedule: Youngstown State (9/4), at Alabama (9/11), Kent State (9/18), Temple (9/25)

2009 Offensive Statistics
Scoring: 28.8 points per game (5th in Big Ten)
Rushing Yards/Game: 169 (5th in Big Ten)
Passing Yards/Game: 237 (5th in Big Ten)
Total Yards/Game: 406 (2nd in Big Ten) 

2009 Defensive Statistics
Scoring: 12.2 points per game (1st in Big Ten, 3rd in Nation)
Rushing Yards/Game: 89 (2nd in Big Ten, 6th in Nation)
Passing Yards/Game: 184 (3rd in Big Ten)
Total Yards/Game: 274 (2nd in Big Ten, 9th in Nation)

2009 Misc Stats
Turnover Margin: +0.46 per game (3rd in Big Ten)
Penalties: 31 yards per game (1st in Big Ten, 3rd in Nation)

Returning Starters
Offense: 7
Defense: 5
Kicker/Punter: 1

Top Returning Statistical Leaders
Passing: QB Kevin Newsome, Soph (8 of 11 for 66 yds)
Rushing: RB Evan Royster, Sr (205 carries for 1169 yds, 6 TD, 5.7 ypc, 89 ypg
Receiving: WR Derek Moye, Jr (48 rec, 785 yds, 6 TD, 3.7 rec/game, 16 ypc, 60 ypg)
Tackles: FS Drew Astorino, Jr (62)
Sacks: DE Jack Crawford, Jr (5.5)
Interceptions: S Nick Sukay, Jr (2)

2010 Pre-Season Rankings
Athlon Sports: #23
Lindy's: #24
Mark Schlabach: #19
Phil Steele: #18
Rivals: #24
Scout: #13
Sporting News: #32
Sports Illustrated: #19
USA Today Coaches Poll: #14

2010 Pre-Season Big Ten Prediction:
Athlon Sports: #4
Phil Steele: #2 (tied with Iowa)
Sports Illustrated: #3 (tied with Wisconsin)

Bowl Predictions:
Athlon Sports: Outback Bowl (vs. South Carolina)
Phil Steele: Capital One Bowl (vs. Auburn)

Last year Penn State beat everyone on their schedule with the exception of Iowa and Ohio State. Penn State had a top notch defense (which lost it's top 3 tacklers, it's leading sack man and it's leader in interceptions) and a senior leader at QB. This year there are a lot of questions for the Penn State Nittany Lions including an early date at the defending National Champion Alabama Crimson Tide. We turned to Devon Edwards of the Nittany White Out to find out what to expect from the 2010 Nittany Lions.

What are the biggest strengths and most glaring weaknesses of Penn State this year?

The obvious weakness for Penn State comes in the form of its biggest question mark, and that's at the quarterback position. Replacing Daryll Clark is no easy job, and reports from practice haven't been the most encouraging. Kevin Newsome should be the starter, though, and Penn State will maximize his skill-set with a very run-oriented offense. Evan Royster returns for his senior season at running back, and, barring injury, he'll become Penn State's leading rusher by midseason, and Stephfon Green adds depth as a very solid backup. The passing game has weapons too, with big-play Derek Moye and possession-receiver Graham Zug. The offensive line is very much a work in progress, but it's unlikely to be much worse than last year's unit, which was victimized by both Iowa and Ohio State.

Defensively, Penn State loses a lot in the front seven, most notably defensive tackle Jared Odrick, who was the defensive player of the year in the Big Ten last year, and all three starting linebackers, of which two--Sean Lee and Navorro Bowman--were real impact players. But I can't think of a time when the Nittany Lions didn't feature plenty of talent there, and with the way Penn State's recruited lately, that's not too great of a worry. Devon Still and Jack Crawford will be expected to step up at defensive end and tackle, respectively, and there's a host of talented linebackers contending for playing time. The defensive backfield returns three starters, and the pair of D'Anton Lynn and Stephon Morris at cornerback might be the best Penn State's had in a while.

The special teams is a major worry, as kicker Collin Wagner's leg only extends about 45 yards and isn't too accurate inside of that. This is a team that was among the worst both returning and covering kicks as well, and the loss of punter Jeremy Boone doesn't help in that regard either.

Penn State has an early game against defending National Champion Alabama. What do you hope to learn about Penn State in this game and what do you view as a successful outing?

I'm not as pessimistic as other observers, who see this game as a romp for Alabama. The Crimson Tide return just 2 starters from last year's defense, and now that the NCAA might be snooping around, the hits could keep on coming. I'd be disappointed if the Lions don't at least keep it close, though the quarterback play is obviously going to be the key. For a young quarterback to play a primetime game, on the road, in a hostile environment, against the #1 team in the country in just his 2nd career start is a recipe for disaster, but if the offense doesn't shoot itself in the foot, the game should be a competitive one. Penn State's defensive trademark is a "bend but don't break," and it's very difficult to run against the base 4-3 defense. Alabama's success offensively will come from stretching the field with Julio Jones to open up the medium range passing game, because the big play isn't typically available.

I know Penn State has the talent to hang with Alabama, I'm just not sure whether the pieces will come together soon enough.

What team on the schedule do you want to beat the most?

This is a toss-up between Ohio State and Iowa. Beating Alabama would be a real eye-opener, but it wouldn't really mean much if Penn State can't use that as a springboard to a successful conference schedule. Really, these three are the only games I'm worried about losing, and I expect this season to be a repeat of last year's 10-2 campaign. Penn State was markedly better than 10 teams and inferior to 2, and the results showed on the field. Now, Iowa's had our number for the past decade, really, and their wins over us the past 2 years were especially damaging, knocking us out of national title contention. Ohio State has become our chief rivals, though, and I think there's a level of hostility towards the Buckeyes--and especially Terrelle Pryor--that the fanbase just doesn't really have for Iowa. With that in mind, I think another win against Ohio State would both help to validate Penn State as a consistent contender--we'll have defeated them thrice in the past 6 years--and, hopefully, defeating an undefeated Buckeyes squad in Columbus would really get at their craw.

Who is the best player on your team that nobody talks about?

Cornerback D'Anton Lynn really stepped up last year, working his way into the starting lineup after barely seeing the field as a freshman, and he impressed. It' often said about defensive backs that you know they're doing their job if you don't hear their name called, and by that measure Lynn was among the conference's best. Though he's not overly flashy, or a ballhawk, Lynn led a Penn State secondary that was very rarely burned. If he keeps improving at this rate, Lynn has a chance to develop into the best corner Penn State's had in recent memory.

Who is the best player on the team?

Penn State's best player isn't playing a glamorous position. Offensive lineman Stefen Wisniewski is one of the best players at his position in the nation, and he's improved each year of his college career. In 2007, Wisniewski was a freshman All-Conference player, in 2008 he was a second team All-Conference, last year he was first team All-Big Ten, and it wouldn't shock me if he was an All-American after this season, just like his uncle, Steve, was 20 years ago. After playing center last year, Wiz has been moved back to his more natural guard, and will be very effective anchoring an untested offensive line. The other candidate would be running back Evan Royster, who's going to be asked to carry the ball much more than he's ever had to. If he rises to the challenge, Royster could become a darkhorse Heisman candidate.

What player(s) needs to step up this year in order for the team to reach it's full capability?

That's an easy one--Kevin Newsome. Though I'm personally a supporter of freshman Paul Jones, who had a brilliant performance in Penn State's spring game, the quarterback job is going to be Newsome's job to lose. He came to Penn State with plenty of hype, as a top-10 quarterback prospect in the country, and we've known since he committed that this was going to be his team. He's more of a dual-threat QB, whose best asset is his legs, and Penn State will reorganize the offense to best suit his style. He's not going to be asked to make too many big plays on his own, and if he can be an effecitve "game manager," this team will have a chance to pull one of those upsets.

Who is the top newcomer that can make an impact this year?

Penn State doesn't have much of a track record of asking freshman to be impact players--back when JoePa started, freshmen weren't even allowed to play and he keeps that in mind even in 2010. Though Penn State featured a very strong recruiting class last year, it's not too high on players who are expected to step in from day one. The guy I'm very excited to see on the field, though, is running back Silas Redd. He was one of those five-star guys, an All-American, and though he'll be buried on the depth chart, Redd has earned rave reviews from everyone who's seen him. An early enrollee, Redd showed impressive quickness at the spring game, and has the potential to earn some carries.

Who is your pick to take the Big 10 this year (you can't pick Penn State) and are there any teams flying under the radar that might be able to make a run at the Big 10 championship?

I think it would be an absolute shocker if Ohio State doesn't win the Big Ten this year. They were the champions last year, and really did not lose much from that Rose Bowl team. If Terrelle Pryor is half the player he's hyped up to be, OSU will be one of the best teams in the country. I'm a little bit surprised at how unhyped Wisconsin has been, though. I'm not necessarily expecting them to head to Pasadena, but John Clay is the conference's best offensive player, and the defense is solid enough to win more often than not in a conference devoid of offensive explosiveness.

Who is the one player on an opposing team that strikes the most fear in your heart?

Adrian Clayborn. That man haunts my nightmares. Let me tell you a story about last year's Iowa game: that was Penn State's famed "white out," an 8 pm start, with the #8 Nittany Lions hosting an unranked Iowa squad in what was billed as Penn State's opportunity for sure vengeance. Hell, even ESPN brought the College Gameday bus to witness the carnage. But a steady, driving rain soaked the crowd and dampened our spirits, even after Penn State jumped out to an early 10-0 lead. At that point, though, the offense went into a shell, and Iowa fought their way back. Clayborn forced a safety, and, after an Iowa field goal, the lead was 10-5 entering the fourth quarter. That's when Clayborn crushed the dreams of at least the 109,316 fans in attendance. On a routine punt attempt, Clayborn burst through the line, blocked Boone's kick, scooped the ball up, and rumbled 50 yards for the go-ahead score. At that point, we all knew it was over. It's one of those moments where you just feel absolutely punched in the gut. I've never heard so many people get so quiet all at once.

Gut feeling on the teams final record at the end of the regular season and what makes this a successful season in your eyes?

My heart tells me Penn State will steal a win in either Tuscaloosa or Iowa City, but my head reminds me of the unsettled quarterback position, and that we'll be playing a much improved Michigan team, for one. In the end, this team will probably be a carbon copy of last year's 10-2 squad, one that beat 10 markedly inferior opponents and lost to 2 better ones. A 9-3 season wouldn't be a rousing success, but to expect anything more would be setting this team up for failure. That said, this season is supposed to set up a potential title run in 2011, and I'd be very relieved to see Kevin Newsome play up to his potential, even if this team drops one they should win.

Make sure to head over to the Nittany White Out to keep up with Penn State and follow the Big Ten this year. You can also follow them on twitter @nittanywhiteout.

Previous Big Ten Previews:
Illinois Fighting Illini 
Indiana Hoosiers 
Iowa Hawkeyes
Michigan Wolverines
Minnesota Golden Gophers 
Northwestern Wildcats
Ohio State Buckeyes
Purdue Boilermakers

Next Up: Alabama Crimson Tide

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