BY JEFF SLADE
As football season inches closer, we take a look at the early preseason previews of every team for the 2015 Big Ten Season, ranking numbers 14 through one until we finally hit September 3rd.
2014 Record: 7-6 (2-6)
Key games: at Maryland, Michigan, at Michigan State
Players to watch: QB Christian Hackenberg, DT Anthony Zettel, entire OL
James Franklin is only entering his second season in Happy Valley; he’s already facing higher expectations.
His inaugural year as head coach had its ups and downs. The team finished with a winning record of 7-6, but 2-6 in the conference left much to be desired for Nittany Lions fans.
They opened the year with four straight victories that began the James Franklin era with optimism. However, a blowout loss at home to Northwestern reminded Franklin there was still plenty of room for improvement. The next three games would go on to define the season, dropping consecutive heartbreakers to Michigan, Ohio State, and Maryland.
The signs were there, though, and most wouldn’t have expected any better in Franklin’s first year. But, improvement will without a doubt be awaited; and expected. The 2015 schedule provides a prime opportunity, as the Nittany Lions face a fairly easy slate of non-conference games.
Despite a tricky opener at an underrated Temple team, Penn State will head in favorites to that and other non-conference contests against Buffalo, San Diego State, and Army. They also find a favorable draw from the other side of the Big Ten, against Illinois and Northwestern from the West division.
This is especially good news with the daunting Big Ten East looming on the horizon. They’ll travel to Ohio State, Maryland, and Michigan State while welcoming to Happy Valley Rutgers, Indiana, and Michigan. The Nittany Lions will look for revenge against Maryland and Michigan, in what should be two pivotal games for the season.
On offense, most of the conversation will center on quarterback Christian Hackenberg, unquestionably one of the most talented players in the conference and nation alike. However, as last season showed, a quarterback can only succeed so much without a competent offensive line to protect him.
In 2014, and young and inexperienced offensive line for Penn State can only be described as a disaster. Hackenberg was sacked a Big Ten high 44 times last year, seven more than any other team and 33 more than conference best Michigan State. The struggles continued just as much in the running game, allowing the fourth-most run stuffs in the backfield nationwide.
Luckily, the offensive line should be improved in 2015, with a year of experience under their belts and the addition of JUCO offensive tackle Paris Palmer. They will almost assuredly be better this year than last. The important question will be just how much?
If they do improve in the trenches, Hackenberg will find a multitude of playmakers to move the ball down the field. Wide receivers DaeSean Hamilton and Geno Lewis provide a proficient combination catching the ball, while junior running back Akeel Lynch will be a steady presence in the backfield. There’s also the inclusion of true freshman Saquon Barkley, a running back possessing big-play ability and already drawing high praise in the offseason.
On the defensive side of the ball, Penn State should once again feature an extremely stout unit that ranked top-10 nationally a year ago.
The defense line should again be dynamic, with defensive tackles Anthony Zettel and Austin Johnson leading the charge in the trenches. There’ll be some new faces on the outside, but there’s high hope sophomore Garret Sickles and senior Carl Nassib can fill the void.
And, though they lose star linebacker Mike Hull, they return every other player to maintain a deep and talented linebacker corps.
Finally there’s the secondary, which also returns three starters in what was a strong group last season. Safeties Jordan Lucas and Marcus Allen will head the way, giving Penn State a fail-safe to rely upon in the back of the field.
All in all – the defense should be fantastic.
And, if the offense can improve greatly or even just slightly, Penn State will no longer be an up and coming program – they’ll be here.
Prediction: 9-4 (4-4); fourth in Big Ten East