The narrative so far:
Aug. 31: Moments prior to kickoff, Brian Cook tweets. I predict he uses the words “student” and “section.”
Sept. 7: A million years from now, astronomers will observe the sudden appearance of a football in a void. They will have only milliseconds to identify it as the one last seen leaving Tommy Rees’s hands in the year 2013 before it explodes.
Sept. 14: I am strongly reminded of my lab work, the part where I rip testicles out of fruit flies.
Sept. 21: Michigan’s steady run offense wins the game in the same manner that a steady drip of water wears through rock.
Sept. 28: BYE.
Oct. 5: Michigan debuts the pistol formation and wastes the surprise on Minnesota.
Raise your hand if you thought Penn State was going to miss their bowl game after starting the 2012 season 0-2, losing to Ohio and Virginia.
Do you see what I did there?
Sorry. Horrible, horrible, I know. For real, though, raise your hand if you thought Penn State was going to recover from those losses and end up 8-4 with an OT victory over Wisconsin. Yeah, that’s nobody. The Nittany Lions’ quick turnaround was pretty impressive considering all the negativity from the Worst Offseason Ever. And they did it the old-fashioned way, by playing smart and efficient football and by developing and motivating players to replace the ones who jumped ship.
Unfortunately, while a winning season and a degree of recruiting success marked a promising start to the Bill O'Brien era, nothing will change the fact that Winter Is Coming.
That actually makes Penn State a really intriguing team to follow over the next few years. No major college team has been struck down this heavily by sanctions while still being allowed to play football. What’s the protocol for recruiting, developing players, and game planning when figuratively you’re going to be short a pint of blood at every phase compared with your competition? I’m kind of curious to see whether this kind of stress will force that staff to invent new strategies that could potentially revolutionize how a college football program is run.
Either way, if Bill O’Brien sticks out his tenure in Happy Valley -- not a given, since he interviewed with NFL teams after last season and declined their offers only because he didn’t want to be “one-and-done” kind of guy -- and has decent success, i.e. a winning record in conference games, Penn State will be back by the end of the decade and in much better shape than it was before the “penn state awful thing” tag was ever created.
O'Brien / Brady.
If you want to know how much better Penn State’s passing offense was after O’Brien started coaching, you only need to take a look at Matt McGloin’s 2012 stat line:
That’s a former walk-on going ham after his team got scuttled by mass transfers following the NCAA penalties.
Compare that to how Tom Brady did in 2011 when O’Brien was New England’s offensive coordinator:
Great. Given the admittedly short but nonetheless impressive track record of turning a so-so passer into one performing on the level of a three-time Superbowl-winning QB (okay maybe not that dramatic, but still pretty good), I think it’s pretty safe to expect that whoever takes the reins of the Nittany Lions offense this season will do pretty well. Eventually, at least.
That guy will probably be incoming freshman Christian Hackenberg, who was ranked the top pro-style passer in his class above Michigan’s Shane Morris. If he doesn’t win the job immediately, he’ll at least be seeing the field by the end of season and fighting for playing time with JUCO transfer Tyler Ferguson, who has gotten only lukewarm reviews so far.
The QB battle will be interesting to watch, but I don't think Michigan needs to worry much. The Mathlete has already reassured us that true freshmen generally suck, and it won’t help that O’Brien’s system is reportedly so complex a caveman couldn’t do it. Ferguson has been on campus for a semester and is still struggling, so I wouldn’t expect either to dazzle anyone until late in the season, if at all.
Let's hope I'm right, because aside from the QB the rest of the offense is pretty loaded. WR Allen Robinson, who led the Big Ten in receiving yards last year (77 rec, 1013 yards, 11 TDs), will be a nice, experienced target to throw to. At 6-3, 200-lbs with decent speed, he’s a guy Borges would want wearing a winged helmet.
And he’s not the only downfield weapon Penn State has in the passing game, nor the most terrifying. While the other wideouts are pretty so-so, the tight ends will be a unit to watch out for, particularly with O’Brien, famous for the two-TE monstrosity he perfected at New England, calling plays. Sophomore TE Jesse James exploded towards the end of his freshman campaign with 15 catches for 276 yards and five touchdowns. The former 19th century train robber is a lot like Devin Funchess, except two inches taller (6-7) and 30 pounds heavier (260 lbs). Okay so he’s nothing like Funchess. Let’s call him “Gronk.”
To complement him, the Lions have a slightly smaller guy in Junior TE Kyle “Aaron Hernandez minus the murder” Carter, who was the team’s second-leading pass catcher with 36 receptions for 453 yards and 2 TDs before missing the last four games of the season with a wrist injury.
I’m a scurred, but not because the guy I compared you to has been killing dudes, allegedly.
The passing game has a lot of potential, but realizing it will depend on how quickly the QB can learn the system. That guy will probably have plenty of time to take chances, get messy, and make mistakes without too much detriment, though, because hey, look, a running game.
If you ignore the shuffling, the offensive line basically returns everyone except for center. They weren’t great last year (not that I watched them a whole lot, but there were grumblings about their run blocking ability), but continuity is never a bad thing.
So we can probably expect a lot of production from their running backs. Junior Zach Zwinak was a nice surprise after the Silas Redd transfer -- he averaged 4.9 yards a carry and broke 1000 yards, ain’t no thang -- and makes me wonder why Michigan can’t have nice things when teams that shouldn’t be able to have nice things have them. At 6-1, 240 pounds, Zwinak makes Brady Hoke wonder the same thing.
As a bigger dude, Zwinak is fairly similar to Iowa’s Mark Weisman, who converted from fullback, was really hard to bring down -- just ask James Ross -- and had surprising speed. Unlike Iowa, however, Penn State also has a couple smaller, shiftier backs that may see signifcant playing time this year. No, they are not like Danny Woodhead.
Outrunning Penn State linebackers is probably the better way to go.
Coaching-wise, I don’t know. John Butler was promoted to defensive coordinator over the offseason after Ted Roof left for Georgia Tech. Previously he coached DBs, and before that he was doing a lot of special teams all over the place.
Butler doesn't have many laurels to rest on, so consider this season to be somewhat of an extended job interview for him. It won’t help that all the stars from last year are gone: LBs Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges, and DT Jordan Hill. They led the team emotionally and in tackles. Hill in particular was instrumental (12 tackles, 2 sacks) in their OT win against Wisconsin to end the season.
That’s not to say the cupboard is bare, though. Plenty of starters return, and the recruiting implosion from the sanctions is only just beginning to nip at the Lions' depth. If Butler can coach, the Penn State defense shouldn’t backslide too dramatically. If he can’t … kerplunk.
The guy who will anchor the defensive effort and be a huge pain in the backfield will probably be LB Glenn Carson. At 6-3, 235 lbs, he played SAM next to Mauti and Hodges last year. This year he’ll probably slide inside. He was an active presence (85 tackles, 3 TFLs, 1 sack) last year and is relatively unknown only because he was overshadowed by his more decorated cohorts.
At the WILL, the Nittany Lions will probably go with 6-0, 225-lb Mike Hull (58 tackles, 5 TFLs, 4 sacks), who got a lot playing time back up Mauti and getting some starts after Mauti’s injury. A redshirt freshman and a sophomore, both undersized, will probably duke it out for SAM. I’m guessing that’s going to be a soft spot for Linebacker U.
The defensive line will be comprised mostly new starters, and none that you’ll recognize unless you’ve been actively following Penn State football, in which case good for you. Wait -- here’s a name you might recognize, and not in the good way: Anthony Zettel. Remember him? Well, he’s not starting, but he’ll be backing up fellow sophomore DE Deion Barnes, who for all intents and purposes has that spot locked down with a 2012 stat line of 25 tackles, 10 TFLs, and 6 sacks. Zettel collected 15 tackles and 4 sacks of his own last season as a situational guy, but is on the outside looking in and probably will stay that way unless he switches positions. Penn Shtaaate.
On the interior, The Nittany Lions have converted DaQuan Jones, a 6-3, 330-lb former offensive lineman, to play tackle (probably nose) and Austin Johnson, a 6-4 310-lb former offensive lineman, to play the other tackle position. Sweet. C.J. Olaniyan (15 tackles, 1 sack) is the other defensive end. Nothing to see here. Move along.
The secondary returns three starters. They were okay last year and look to continue to be okay this year. Behind them are a bunch of guys that decommitted and went to Ohio State or Michigan instead. Secondarymaggedon, man. Never forget.
This team is kind of like: A blinking fuel light 100 miles from the nearest gas station.
Vs. Michigan: Well. A lot of things can happen between now and Oct. 12. I know that’s a stupid thing to say, but here’s what I mean: both teams are evenly matched now, but it’s a very unstable equilibrium.
While both teams meet at roughly the same place in terms of overall talent and depth, Michigan is on the upswing from its own tumultuous coaching changes. Penn State is dropping. Michigan has a lot more potential to develop in its young, inexperienced players. We’re waiting to see if any of the rookies or players returning from injury can exceed expectations: Derrick Green, the sophomore receivers, the interior O-line, Blake Countess, Jake Ryan’s replacement, Jake Ryan when he returns … Penn State needs to milk every last ounce of production from its veterans because Winter Is Coming and won’t be bringing in a whole lot of warm bodies. My feeling is that they aren’t waiting for guys to blow up so much as just praying that they’re viable.
Yes, that’s just a circuitous way to say I’m going to punt on any sort of prediction.
Due to conflicting allegiances, I don't know how to feel about this photo.
What will be exciting about this game is the O’Brien vs. Mattison matchup. As you may know, O’Brien was hired by the Patriots around the same time Mattison went to Baltimore. While O’Brien wasn’t officially New England’s offensive coordinator until 2011, after Mattison came to Michigan, he was Tom Brady’s QB coach as well as official “play-caller,” whatever that means.
Over the three year stretch that both were at their respective NFL teams, the Patriots and Ravens split pretty evenly in the win-loss category. Interestingly, the box scores suggest that the New England O vs. Baltimore D battle usually ended in Baltimore’s favor. Specifically, the Pats were nowhere near as prolific as they were against other teams and often struggled horrifically on third down.
I’m sure that’s usually what happens when Ray Lewis is on your team, but it’s a promising sign.
Aug. 31, Syracuse
Sept. 7, EMU
Sept. 14, UCF
Sept. 21, Kent State
Sept. 28, BYE
Oct. 5, @ Indiana
Oct. 12, Michigan
Oct. 19, BYE
Oct. 26, @OSU
Nov. 2, Illinois
Nov. 9, @Minnesota
Nov. 16, Purdue
Nov. 23, Nebraska
Nov. 30, @Wisconsin
Wins: Syracuse, EMU, UCF, Kent State, @Indiana, Illinois, @Minnesota, Purdue
Flip of a biased coin: Michigan, Nebraska, @Wisconsin