We're rolling through our Know Your Enemy series, much like General George Patton rolled through Europe back in WWII. Next up are the Fighting O'Briens of Penn State, also known as the Nittany Lions.
I've always meant to ask this question...what the hell is a ‘Nittany' Lion?
Sorry, I digress.
By the time the Penn State game rolls around, they will be seven games into their season, with three conference games, and two of their toughest challenges in Northwestern and Wisconsin, out of the way.
Let's assume that Ohio State is 7-0 heading into this game. At this point, the Buckeyes are probably no lower than #2 in the country, unless, of course, both Alabama and LSU are undefeated (they don't meet until November, so it's possible).
Penn State will most likely be in one of two places, at least from a perception perspective. The one that is most likely is 5-1, with a loss to Michigan, but they'll be coming out of the bye with an extra week to prepare. Most people will still be talking about what a great job Bill O'Brien is doing under the circumstances, but he just doesn't have the horses to run with the Michigans and Ohio States right now.
Penn State will be 6-0, with a win against Michigan, coming off a bye, and wind in their sails. And everyone will make them a sexy upset pick against Ohio State, because no one outside of Columbus wants OSU to run the table.
So, let's do this.
Penn State - Ohio State kickoff time, schedule
October 26th, 2013, Ohio Stadium.
8 PM EST
ABC or ESPN2...WSYX 6/Ch 32 (302HD) on Time Warner Cable Columbus, ch 209 on DirecTV
Q: We're not going to talk about...that...again, are we?
Q: Good. How does Bill O'Brien replace all the senior leaders he lost last year?
That seems to be the $64,000 question right now. Gone are guys like Matt McGloin, Michael Mauti, Gerald Hodges, and Michael Zordich. Those guys, along with a couple others, were the heart and soul of a football program that went through a fire few programs have had to endure, yet they were able to bring the Nittany Lions out on the other side.
But the scholarship reductions and bowl bans are only in year two of four, and as the emotion of 2012 fades into the distance, it will be more difficult to sustain that emotion that helped carry them last year. There are questions at quarterback, questions to who will step up and fill the void left by guys like Mauti, and quite frankly, questions about the long term viability of O'Brien himself at Penn State. He came from the NFL, and supposedly rebuffed a couple of offers to return there last year.
But onward and upward at Happy Valley. Even with the scholarship reductions, O'Brien pulled in a very good class, including what many people feel is the top quarterback coming out of high school in Christian Hackenberg. And the 2014 class is also off to a good start, so even though PSU is at a disadvantage in terms of scholarship numbers right now, the reports of their demise seem to be greatly exaggerated.
Q: Okay, so the long term viability isn't as bleak as we might have thought. But I want to know about this year, and this game. Who will be their QB?
Solid question, and as of right now, I don't know, because O'Brien doesn't know. Hackenberg is an incoming freshman and will compete for the job when fall camp starts, but the two favorites were thought to be Steven Bench and Tyler Ferguson. When asked after their Spring Game if he had made a decision as to who his starter is, O'Brien said:
"I'm not any closer," head coach Bill O'Brien said of determining a starter. "But I enjoy coaching both guys and, eventually, we'll have to make a decision. But I'm not ready to make that right now."
But O'Brien sat Bench down and told him after the Spring Game that the first team battle would be between Ferguson and Hackenberg, and Bench transferred to the University of South Florida. So now, it's between Hackenburg and Ferguson.
Now, this is just me being all conspiracy theory here, but I think Hackenberg has a decent chance to be starting by the time this game rolls around. Hackenberg is BOB's guy, has all the tools to succeed at the next level, and with no conference championship or bowl game at stake, it kind of makes sense to me that if Ferguson isn't lighting it up, O'Brien will want Hackenberg getting as much experience as early as possible.
Ferguson has no previous experience, which also makes me think Hackenberg will be starting, so quarterback is, without a doubt, the biggest question mark heading into the fall. But all that said, if Bill O'Brien can turn Matt McGloin into a serviceable quarterback, they will get adequate play out of whoever is under center in 2013.
Q: If quarterback is so unsettled, who on offense should Ohio State fans worry about?
Well, Zach Zwinak probably ran for the quietest 1,000 yards in recent Big Ten memory last year. Whether it was all of the other distractions and storylines in Happy Valley, the other running backs in the conference that cast a long shadow, or something else, the fact remains that Zwinak ran for exactly 1,000 yards as a sophomore, which was more than more celebrated guys like Kain Colter, Mark Weisman, and Carlos Snow. When you consider that Zwinak only had two yards in the first three games, that's a pretty impressive number, and he only got better as the season went on.
One of the more impressive turn arounds last year was the improved play of Matt McGloin and all of his moxie. The beneficiary of most of that improved play was Allen Robinson, a big receiver who had 77 catches, 1,018 yards, and 11 touchdowns last year. I am of the firm belief that for a quarterback to develop into a solid passer, he needs a go to guy that he can rely on to catch anything thrown his way, and Robinson fits that bill. Another security blanket-type guy could very well be tight end Kyle Carter, who was having a good season as a freshman before he hurt his wrist against Nebraska. Although he missed three of the last four games, he was still second on the team in receptions, yards, and yards per catch, trailing only Robinson in those categories.
Q: Let's talk defense. Who is going to be a guy to avoid?
Penn State is known as ‘Linebacker U', and guys like Hodges and Mauti (who are both going to kick some serious hindquarters with the Vikings WOOOOOOO!!!!) added to that legend. So naturally, my inclination is to look there, and I'm going to give you the name of Glen Carson, the starting MLB. Carson, along with fellow B1G Media day rep and starting safety Malcolm Willis, are the two guys everyone else will look to in the huddle to set the tone.
I also like Mike Hull, a linebacker that has been under the radar a bit. He's created a lot of buzz in Happy Valley, and the defense as a whole seemed a step ahead of the offense during the spring. The Nittany Lions also lead the Big Ten in sacks last season, and Anthony Zettel and Deion Barnes return, meaning they'll still be disruptive along the line.
This is going to be one of the better units in the Big Ten, and I think they'll have to carry the load in the early part of the season while the offense gets used to their new quarterback.
Q: Hey, remember that kicker Sam Ficken and how he couldn't hit water if he fell out of a boat?
Well, that's not 100% accurate. True, Ficken had about the worst start of any kicker in the country last season, missing six of his first eight field goals, including four in a one point loss to Virginia. But after that rough start, Ficken went 12/13 to finish the season, and what many people thought was a weakness turned into a strength. And to O'Brien's credit, he stuck with Ficken when a lot of coaches would have tried another guy out, especially after the Virginia game.
Q: What's the verdict on Penn State in 2013, and how long do you see Bill O'Brien sticking around?
I think they're going to be pretty good, but as to BOB, I'm not sure. Penn State is losing a lot of leadership, but there is still a lot of talent on this team, and they will be able to compete. Now that last year's distractions are getting farther away, O'Brien will be able to keep his players focused on their season and what's in front of them, but there's a lot of inexperience at key positions on both sides of the ball. With a very manageable non-conference schedule, their toughest opponents are Michigan, OSU, Nebraska and Wisconsin. Even if they go 1-3 in those games, that's a 9-3 season. Let's say they split those two games, and a 10 win season is doable.
Personally, I would love to see O'Brien stick around throughout the entirety of Penn State's NCAA sanctions so he can reap the rewards of all the dues Penn State is currently paying. But I don't know if that's going to happen. The more success he has, the more attractive he will be to NFL teams looking for a new coach, and although Penn State came up with a nice bonus to keep him around, and he repeatedly has said he's not going to cut and run, he might get the proverbial offer he can't refuse.
Q: Tell me some cool stuff about Penn State. Like, for example, what is THON?
Well, the Law of Recency might make that difficult for some people, but Penn State is a world class university. Their main rival used to be the University of Pittsburgh, and was one of the biggest rivalries in college football. But as both schools left for separate conferences, they quit playing each other on a regular basis, and haven't played since 2000. However, they will renew their series in 2016, and it will run through 2019, with both teams getting two home games. Penn State leads the all-time series 48-42, with four ties.
But Penn State is a lot more than a football rivalry, or football in general. And the students and alumni sure as hell aren't the monsters that a lot of members in the media made them out to be at the height of...that. In all truthfulness, they have one of the most philanthropic student bodies and alumni bases in the country, and the prime example of that is the Penn State/Panhellic Dance Marathon, or THON for short. Our friends at Black Shoe Diaries did a great write up on THON 2013 and Cari Greene, one of the writers at BSD, was kind enough to tell me what THON is for the unitiated. I'll just get out of the way and let her take the mic:
The Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon is the biggest student-run philanthropy in the world. It started over 30 years ago as a traditional charity-benefiting dance marathon and over the years has morphed into something pretty amazing. Last year, Penn State students raised $12,374,034.46 "for the kids"-all donations go to the Four Diamonds Fund at the Penn State Hershey Medical Center. This fund was set up to pay for the obligatory treatment and research into cures for pediatric cancer, but also helps fund things like hotels for the families to stay by their kids who are getting treatment, as well as care for the kids in the family who don't have cancer, and helps pay for things that families can't afford while they're out of work caring for their children.
Thon is a year-round fundraising effort (in the fall and winter, there are multiple "canning weekends" that see PSU students go all around the eastern seaboard and some Midwest to stand on street corners collecting donations) that culminates in a 46-hour event at the Bryce Jordan Center in February. For the event, hundreds of couples from a variety of organizations around campus are on their feet for 46 hours straight, no sitting or laying down allowed-it's quite a spectacle, especially the last few hours counting down to the reveal of the total donations raised that last year. A few hours before the end is "Family Hour", where Four Diamonds Fund families talk about their struggles with pediatric cancer and the help that Thon has provided.
There isn't a dry eye in the house for that part of Thon, and it's even more powerful when you see all the Thon families that walk around the floor, interacting with all the dancers and the crowd; each organization that sends a male and female dancer to Thon has at least one "Thon Kid" that they sponsor, and the for the kids, this weekend is truly better than Christmas. Most organizations spend time with the families outside of Thon weekend as well; last year, my brother was a dancer, and he made apple pies from scratch for his families for Thanksgiving (which he dropped off at their houses with no notice), as well as visiting the families for nerf gun fights and cookouts. The orgs sponsor the same kids from year to year, so they build very strong bonds with members who volunteer every year.
THAT is Penn State, THAT is what the Big Ten is about, and THAT is something to be shouted from the rooftops when you talk about the Nittany Lions and their culture.
Q: What are the keys to an Ohio State victory here?
It's eerily similar to what I wrote for the Iowa game. Like Iowa, Penn State will have a very inexperienced quarterback playing, and no matter how good of a natural athlete he is, pressure him and he'll probably make mistakes. Also like Iowa, Penn State's main running threat will have to be neutralized. If you let Zach Zwinak get into a groove and Penn State moves the chains and grinds the clock, now you've got a James Vandenberg in 2009 scenario all over again. Ohio State has to pounce early, get a fairly decent lead, and make Penn State play catch up.
On defense, they need to shut down Zwinak, and neutralize Allen Robinson as much as possible. Ohio State did a very good job of that last season, so it's not like it's an impossibility-Zwinak only had 42 yards rushing, and Robinson only had 68 yards receiving, and neither player scored in last year's contest.
With a better offense and a secondary that takes a back seat to no one, I like OSU's chances.
Q: Ohio State should win this then, right?