When you think Penn State football, it all starts with Joe Paterno. 401 career wins, and the man keeps going. One could argue that being on the sideline is hazardous for an 84 year old man, but unless Penn State is ready to give Paterno the Jimbo Fisher treatment, Paterno will likely stay on the sideline as long as the Good Lord keeps him on the earth. Last season, the Nittany Lions were in a rebuilding mode and finished 7-6. If there was some consolation to the season, Penn State fans can take some solace that the 37-24 loss to Florida in the Outback Bowl was one of the Big Ten's least embarrassing losses on New Years Day.
Going into 2010, Paterno selected true freshman Rob Bolden to start the season. As you might expect, the offense was a inconsistent, especially in an early season game against defending national champion Alabama on the road. After Bolden suffered a concussion against Minnesota, Penn State turned to former walk-on Matt McGloin, who led a 21-point comeback against Northwestern with four touchdown passes. Despite McGloin's five interception performance against Florida, Bolden remained on the bench. Bolden asked to transfer, only to have his request for a release to be denied by Paterno. The two quarterbacks fought through spring ball, and Bolden again talked transfer before finally returning to State College in June. Both quarterbacks are still battling for the job as preseason practice begins.Neither quarterback put up spectacular numbers last season. Bolden's numbers might actually be considered superior to McGloin's. Bolden completed 58% of his passes for 1360 yards, five touchdowns, and seven interceptions. McGloin completed 55% of his passes for 1548 yards, but 14 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. From a pure talent perspective, Bolden should have a huge edge, but McGloin probably plays smarter. For Penn State, it has to be one of those two as junior Kevin Newsome transferred out and redshirt freshman Paul Jones is suspended due to academic concerns. If McGloin ends up starting over Bolden, it'll be interesting to see how Bolden reacts. Penn State can't afford to have this soap opera continue in the fall.
Penn State has to replace Evan Royster, the all-time rushing leader for the Lions, this season. Sophomore Silas Redd rushed for 437 yards last season on only 77 carries as a true freshman. He's a better breakaway threat than Royster was, as his 11 carry, 131 yard performance against Northwestern showed. Senior Stephfon Green also has some speed, but he'll need to produce more than 3.9 yards a carry this season. In short yardage situations, 230 pound senior Brandon Beachum appears to be finally recovered from an ACL injury and could provide some thunder in the backfield.
Senior Derek Moye will be the primary target in the passing game for whomever plays quarterback. Moye, an honorable mention all-Big Ten performer last year, caught 53 passes for 885 yards and eight touchdowns last season. His 4.38 speed should be a challenge to most cornerbacks. 6'3" junior Justin Brown caught 33 passes last year for 452 yards but only one touchdown; he looks more like the possession receiver type. 5'7" junior Devon Smith caught 27 passes for 363 yards last season, and should start as well. He looks more like a Nebraska receiver from the 90's at only 157 pounds. Sophomore tight end Kevin Haplea is more of a threat blocking; he only caught three passes last season.
Last year's offensive line was pretty solid in pass protection, but un-Penn State like when they wanted to run the ball. Led by all-Big Ten right guard Stefen Wisniewski, Penn State's offensive line led the Big Ten in only allowing 12 sacks last season. Three starters remain, led by senior left tackle Quinn Barham who was an honorable mention all-Big Ten selection last year. Senior left guard Johnnie Troutman is a two year starter and king of the weight room; he might be the key to improving the run blocking. Senior right tackle Chima Okoli is still learning the ropes of the offensive line and should be much improved.
Last year's defensive line was not up to Penn State's standards, and they only return two thanks to the ACL injury suffered by defensive end Pete Massaro in the spring. If senior defensive end Jack Crawford has recovered from a food injury that cut his 2010 season short, he could be the disruptive force that Penn State lacked last year. Senior defensive tackle Devon Still likely will be the leading force up front defending both the run and the pass. Senior defensive end Eric Latimore or junior Sean Stanley likely will start at the other defensive end; Latimore probably has more potential than Stanley last season.
Linebacker U. only returns one regular starter, but as you might expect, there's talent here. Senior outside linebacker Nate Stupar totaled 73 tackles last year starting most of 2010. Junior Michael Mauti moved to inside linebacker in the spring, and now that he's fully recovered from a 2009 ACL injury, might be ready to be the next great Penn State linebacker. Despite being hampered by his ACL and a shoulder injury last season, he still contributed 67 tackles. That number could explode this season. Junior Gerald Hodges will likely start at the other outside spot, and he's likely to put up numbers like Stupar and Mauti did last season.
In the secondary, starters return at all four positions. Leading the pack is senior D'Anton Lynn, an honorable mention all-Big Ten performer in 2010. He's the leading returning tackler on the defense with 75 last season, as well as the leading pass defender with four pass breakups and three interceptions. Senior free safety Nick Sukay should put up monster numbers as well; he had 29 tackles and three interceptions before tearing a pectoral muscle in the sixth game. Senior hero (strong safety) Drew Astorino also earned honorable mention all-Big Ten honors last season with 70 tackles and five pass breakups. Penn State finished 16th nationally in pass defense without much of a pass rush; with the talent in the secondary, look for the Lions to be even better up front.
The biggest intangible of this game is that the game is in State College, where Beaver Stadium will likely be packed with nearly 110,000 fans in white. Nebraska is 1-5 on the road against Penn State, including that painful 1982 game that was stolen by a referees bad call. Even Mike McCloskey admits he was out of bounds on the play. This is the first of a two game road trip where the Huskers will play in front of over 220,000 hostile fans. It'll be important for the Huskers to play disciplined and focused in a hostile environment, lest a repeat of that 2002 blowout occurs. If the offensive and defensive lines improve the way people expect them to, Penn State should match up very well against Nebraska. If that happens, this is exactly the type of matchup that makes Nebraska's entry into the Big Ten so attractive on a national scale.