The Penn State Nittany Lions and coach Bill O’Brien look to start off 2013 with a different outcome than they did in his first season last year.
After back-to-back losses in O’Brien’s first games as the successor of legendary coach Joe Paterno, and all of the off the field distractions surrounding the program, the Nittany Lions were able to win eight of their last 10 games to finish with a respectable 8-4 mark to cap a calendar year of trying circumstances.
With 2012 in the rearview mirror, the program can look forward to 2013 and a season opener that features a neutral site game at MetLife Stadium against ACC newcomer Syracuse on Saturday at 3:30 on ABC. Penn State leads the all-time series against Syracuse 42-23, and have won the last four meetings between the two schools.
Much like Penn State’s facelift in 2012, the Orange have undergone some major changes as well. Former coach Doug Marrone led the program out of the dark ages with a pair of eight win seasons, two bowl wins (Pinstripe in 2010 and 2012) and a 25-25 overall mark in his four seasons before leaving for the Buffalo Bills in January. Also gone is the teams’ three-year starter at quarterback, Ryan Nassib, who threw 26 touchdown passes last season and was drafted by the New York Giants in the fourth round of the NFL Draft.
But while the Nittany Lions return their coach, O’Brien will also be without his former starting quarterback in Matt McGloin, who led the Big Ten in passing efficiency last season before graduating and catching on with the Oakland Raiders. In his place, the O’Brien has two talented newcomers under center in junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson and highly touted freshman Christian Hackenberg.
The pair has competed for the job throughout the summer, but neither has separated themselves from each other going into opening weekend. O’Brien said earlier this week that the fans and media will find out who the starter is when the offense hits the field for their first play. It has since been reported by ESPN and various media reports that the true freshman Hackenberg will indeed start for the Nittany Lions. He becomes the just the third freshman to start at quarterback for Penn State, joining Shorty Miller in 1910 and Rob Bolden in 2010.
The freshman should have plenty of support around him as Penn State returns eight starters on offense, including the teams leading rusher in Zach Zwinak and leading receiver in Allen Robinson from last season. Zwinak was a 1,000 yard back in 2012 and Robinson leads a deep group of pass catchers that includes a glut of talented tight ends, which has quickly become a Bill O’Brien staple. Nittany Lion tight ends accounted for 82 catches, 1,090 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2012, and that number is only expected to grow as the group has another year in the system and adds highly touted recruit Adam Breneman to the fold.
Like the Nittany Lions, the Orange and new coach Scott Schafer also have not yet named a starting quarterback, and will wait under Saturday to unveil either senior Drew Allen or sophomore Terrel Hunt under center.
But even with a new starter at quarterback, the Orange will look to make things easier by continuing their impressive ground attack led by running backs Jerome Smith and Prince-Tyson Gulley. The duo combined for 2,001 yards and 12 touchdowns last season while averaging over five yards per carry.
Trying to meet the challenge of the Orange rushing attack will be the always-solid Nittany Lions defense, but one that will be replacing several key standouts from the unit. While the unit lost playmakers like Michael Mauti, Gerald Hodges and Jordan Hill, the Lions still return five starters on defense that held opponents to 19.1 points per game in 2012. Some of those players include Glenn Carson at linebacker, Adrian Amos at cornerback, Malcolm Willis at safety and Deion Barnes at defensive end. While it will certainly be a challenge to replace the six other starters, the Lions and first-year defensive coordinator John Butler feel confident in the group heading into the season.
The new Penn State defense’s first task will be slowing the Orange rushing attack, which should be relied upon heavily with a new quarterback under center. On the flip side, expect a similar approach from the Nittany Lions on offense as they, too, bring in a new signal caller.
With both teams pretty evenly matched, it could come down to whichever quarterback gets settled quicker. That being said, the Penn State defense should load up the box and try to take away the running game early and then feast on the inexperienced quarterback. The Syracuse defense, meanwhile, isn’t as stout and doesn’t return as many key players as the Nittany Lion defense, and could struggle to defend the Lions’ many skill players on offense. Look for a defensive struggle early that tilts toward the Nittany Lions as one of the quarterbacks settles in with all those weapons.
If all goes as planned for the Nittany Lions, it should be a very different start to the season than the one they experienced last season, which would be a welcome change for Bill O’Brien and Co.