In their season opener Saturday against Ohio at Beaver Stadium, the Penn State Nittany Lions will have something on their backs other than their numbers – their names – for the first time ever.
And for the first time in 46 years, the Penn State Nittany Lions will open a football season without one Joseph Vincent Paterno on the sidelines. Instead, first-year coach Bill O’Brien will guide the Lions through the tunnel out onto Beaver Stadium and an expected 100,000+ fans.
Change happens, even at Happy Valley.
The change marks the new era of Penn State football, led by coach O’Brien and his staff. The 2012 Lions hardly resemble their past counterparts. Practices have gone from quiet and detail-oriented to loud, agressive and smash-mouth.
And that new era of Nittany Lion football begins with a tough non-conference opener at noon on ESPN against an Ohio Bobcats team that won 10 games last season. The Bobcats are among the preseason favorites in the MAC, where they lost in the leagues championship game to Northern Illinois last season.
O’Briens Nittany Lions are coming off one of the most tumultuous 9-4 seasons you’ll ever find. After a week two loss to eventual national champion Alabama, the Lions reeled off seven-straight wins to go to 8-1 with Big Ten title game aspirations. Then the Lions ran into Nebraska, just days after legendary coach Joe Paterno was fired, and were humbled in an emotion loss before bowing out of the race at Wisconsin two weeks later. The disappointing finish led to an even more disappointing trip to the TicketCity Bowl, where the Lions were throttled by the Houston Cougars, 30-14.
Then, in the offseason, NCAA sanctions levied against the program have cost the team a bowl game for the next four years and scholarship losses as well. Due to the sanctions, players were permitted to transfer with no restrictions of sitting out a year. Only nine players left, but among them were returning starters in tailback Silas Redd, wide receiver Justin Brown and backup quarterback Rob Bolden among others.
But for those who stayed, 2012 brings a fresh start.
Back is starting quarterback Matt McGloin, a former walk-on, who threw for 1,500 yards and eight touchdowns last year. He’s also said to be thriving in O’Brien’s system according to the coach. The senior leads a young offense that looks for more consistency from the passing game in 2012.
Stepping into the void left by 1,000 yard rusher Silas Redd is rising sophomore Bill Belton, who’s quickness and burst will have Lions fans on the edge of their seats. Belton showed his elusiveness and vision down the stretch last year out of the teams Wildcat formation. Good news for Lions fans is that they’ll see plenty of Belton this year, both in the running game as well as out of the backfield, where O’Brien loves his ability.
While the receiving corps has suffered from the graduation of Derek Moye, the transfer of Brown and the dismissal of the speedy Devon Smith, receiving threats have emerged from camp. One is sophomore Allen Robinson, others include junior Shawney Kersey, freshman Trevor Williams, sophomore Alex Kenney and senior Evan Lewis. Only Robinson and Kersey caught balls last year. At tight end, incumbent starter Kevin Haplea bolted for Florida State, freshman Kyle Carter, junior Garey Gilliam and freshman Jesse James.
But where the offense has question marks, the defense (as always it seems) should shine in 2012 for the Nittany Lions. Back from injury is linebacker Michael Mauti, who teams with All Big-Ten performer Gerald Hodges to give “Linebacker U” some punch on defense. Not to be outdone, the defensive line features another All Big-Ten performer in tackle senior Jordan Hill. In the secondary, junior safety Malcolm Willis and senior Stephon Morris lead a talented young group.
Sophomore Sam Ficken takes over the kicking duties from the departed Alex Fera, who transferred to Texas. Junior Alex Butterworth will handle the punting duties.
Against a tough, Frank Solich-coached team, the Lions will need to establish Bill Belton and the running game to setup Matt McGloin and the passing attack. Despite their 10-win 2011, the Bobcats gave up close to 200 yards on the ground per game and saw opponents pile up more than 22 points per game. If the Lions can get some running room early, the playbook should open up to feature a new and improved Matt McGloin through the air against a defense that gave up more than 250 yards a game last season.
On defense, the goal is simple: contain Tyler Tettleton. The junior quarterback makes and breaks the Bobcats offense. Tettleton threw for over 3,000 yards and 28 touchdowns last season while completing 64.2% of his passes. He also chipped in 600 yards and nine touchdowns rushing as a dual-threat quarterback. In the teams four losses he threw six touchdowns and six interceptions compared to 22 touchdowns and just four interceptions in the teams 10 wins. If Mauti, Hodges and Co. can contain him, the Lions will win going away. If not, then it’s upset special in Happy Valley in coach O’Brien’s first game.
But not so fast my friend, Bill Belton has the first of many coming out parties in 2012 as he rushes for over 150 yards and three touchdowns as the Lions take down the Bobcats 35-13.