Stadium: Beaver Stadium, State College, PA
When They Play Terps: November 1, vs. Maryland (TBA)
Penn State is one of the most storied institutions in the Big Ten and and one that has suffered through a good amount of turmoil in recent years.
The Nittany Lions success dates back to 1950 when Rip Engle coached at the school. Engle accumulated a 104-48-4 record in his 15 years at Penn State, which ended in 1965 and lead into one of the most successful eras in the history of the program.
Joe Paterno was an assistant under Engle and assumed the head coach position in 1966. Something many fans might not know is that Penn State was an independent until 1993 when they joined the Big Ten. The Nittany Lions won two national championships in their history, coming in 1982 and 1986.
The 1982 national title team was led by quarterback Todd Blackledge and running back Curt Warner. Blackledge won the Davey O’Brien award while at Penn State ended up being drafted seventh overall by the Kansas City Chiefs. The Nittany Lions defeated Georgia 27-23 in the 1983 Sugar Bowl for Paterno’s first title.
Just four years later marked one of the most interesting seasons in the history of college football. The Nittany Lions went up against Miami in the 1986 title game. The Hurricanes came into the game undefeated and were one of the originators of what it means to have swag. They wore combat fatigues upon arriving at the game while Penn State wore suits and ties. Vinny Testaverde tossed five interceptions and the Nittany Lions took home their second national title of the decade.
Penn State has been a program that was built on defense as they’ve been referred to as “Linebacker U.” The Nittany Lions have had several stellar linebackers over the years, including Jack Ham, Lavar Arrington, Cameron Wake, Paul Posluszny, Tamba Hali, and NaVorro Bowman just to name a few. Obviously not all of the dominant linebackers have enjoyed successful NFL careers, but they did excel at the collegiate level.
Flip the script to the present day and Penn State has been rocked by plenty of controversy in recent years.
Former offensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was charged with sexually assaulted dozens of children over the years and currently is in prison for his action. As more information came to the forefront, the worse things got for the university. Everyone from Paterno to wide receivers coach Mike McQueary to university officials was implicated in the scandal. Paterno, along with many other members of the staff, was forced out by the school.
After a long investigation, the NCAA decided to slap Penn State with a four-game bowl ban, a $60 million fine, and significant loss of scholarships. There’s talk that the Nittany Lions could keep receiving more scholarships and may not see the bowl ban last for all four years. However, all wins from 1998-2011 were vacated, including a pair of Big Ten titles during that period. Former star players like Michael Robinson, Derrick Williams, and Hali never won a game while at Penn State after the wins were vacated.
Following the scandal that rocked college football, the program turned to Patriots assistant coach Bill O’Brien to try to bring it back to prominence. The former assistant even has ties to Maryland as he served as the the running backs coach from 2005-2006. O’Brien had quite a statement as he put every player’s name on the back of their jerseys, something the school had never done. O’Brien led the Nittany Lions to an 8-4 record in their first season following the scandal and a second place finish in the Leaders Division. In 2013, it wasn’t quite as strong of a season, but Penn State still won seven games and finished third in their division. As strong as Penn State’s momentum was, O’Brien couldn’t resist the allure of the NFL and he left during the offseason to become the head coach of the Houston Texans.
Penn State definitely wanted to keep their positive momentum going, both on the field and on the recruiting trail. To do that, the Nittany Lions hired Vanderbilt coach and former Maryland assistant James Franklin. Franklin accrued a 24-15 record while coaching the Commodores over the course of the last three years. Before that, he was the offensive coordinator for the Terrapins under Ralph Friedgen from 2008-2010. Franklin is the first African-American head coach in the program’s history. He certainly has already made his presence known on the Big Ten recruiting trail and has self-proclaimed himself as someone who will treat the DMW as his home area. It certainly ruffled the feather of coach Randy Edsall and should make for a fun battle in the coming years.
Why they could be good: Quarterback play
The Nittany Lions have a good amount of question marks coming into 2014. However, one place they don’t is at the most important position on the field: quarterback. As a freshman in 2013, Hackenberg won the job before the season began and really had a strong season. The highly-touted recruit passes for 2,955 yards (58.9 completion percentage) and 20 touchdowns while only throwing 10 interceptions. He eclipsed the 300-yard mark in three games (Eastern Michigan, Michigan, and Wisconsin) and threw multiple touchdown passes in five games. Hackenberg is a guy who shows tremendous poise in the pocket and doesn’t get flustered. He is very accurate and throws pretty well on the run for a pocket passer. The Nittany Lions did lose top receiver Allen Robinson and will need to replace that production. However, Hackenberg is so talented that he may be able to make up for that loss.
Why they could be bad: They lost a ton of talent
Penn State lost 18 lettermen from a year ago, including Robinson, three offensive line starters, and defensive tackle DaQuan Jones. There’s a ton to replace in State College and Franklin is facing an extremely task in his first year at the school. The Nittany Lions do have a top 25 recruiting class, but the freshmen will have to have a huge impact for Penn State to compete this year. Hackenberg may struggle in year two and it could be a long season.
Prediction: The Nittany Lions will have a losing record
As I indicated above, it’ll be an uphill battle for Penn State. The offensive line has to completely retooled and they’ll have to rely a ton on the running game of Zack Zwinak and Bill Belton. Depth at linebacker will also be thin, so it could be a long season for Linebacker U.