Look, I don't know what's going to happen Saturday when the Syracuse Orange take on the Penn St. Nittany Lions at MetLife Stadium. I don't really feel like I know enough about Penn State to be fully prepared. So it's a good thing I asked the fine folks over at Black Shoe Diaries to fill us in about the team, the players and what's going on in Nittany Land. Let's find out some stuff.
A year ago, Penn State football is in a state of disarray and turmoil (at least from the outside looking in). A year later, how do Penn State fans look back on the 2012 season, the rough start and the strong finish?
There's always the issue of recency bias, but it seems like the Penn State fanbase is ready to call 2012 one of the most important seasons in Nittany Lion history. The year already went up on Beaver Stadium next to the undefeated seasons and national and conference championships, and it feels weird that a year that started so inconspicuously ended so celebrated. Maybe it's just that by the end of it, football was just football again, and that was sorely needed. As far as the Xs and Os, it's generally acknowledged that O'Brien needed a little bit of time to realize what he had with his team, nobody blames anyone but Sam Ficken for losing the Virginia game, and last year might have been the first in a long time that 8-4 was a whole hell of a lot better than expectations. There's still lingering resentment towards the officials for just how Penn State lost the Nebraska game (and, in some circles, the Ohio State game), but given what absolution the end of the season was--beating Wisconsin in overtime--it almost feels misplaced.
Year 2 for Bill O'Brien. I'm guessing you guys are overjoyed with what he's done. What's the long-term prognosis with him. Is he really going to be there a decade from now? What's the expectation?
For Penn State fans, this is an issue we haven't dealt with in thirty years. It's kind of weird to not have a coach who you know is going to be at the school until the day he retires. BOB did a great job last year not just keeping together a squad that was expected to splinter off and create a quasi-death penalty situation, but also in both player development and in-game situations. The guy turned Matt freaking McGloin into the Big Ten's best passer, and made the Madden-esque strategy of going for every fourth down kind of work. There will always be NFL teams calling, but Penn State will do everything they can to make sure O'Brien's willing to stick around, at least through the sanctions. I'm honestly not sure if we could handle losing him, especially considering the incredible job he's continued to do on the recruiting trail. He's continued to do and say all the right things, so there's a sense of cautious optimism surrounding his future, I'd say.
Penn State still hasn't announced a quarterback, something SU fans are familiar with. Can you talk a bit about who the options are, what they bring to the table, who might be favored and the chances of a platoon?
It's a little difficult to break down the quarterback battle, simply because Penn State fans haven't seen much of either Ferguson or Hackenberg. The former at least got some playing time in the Blue/White Game, where he looked okay--really, more like a small-conference QB than a Big Ten one. He's kind of wiry, and his mechanics aren't great--he tends to sling the ball--but he's got good mobility, has a little more experience with the playbook and with his receivers, and has at least played some college football, even if it was JuCo. Hackenberg looks the part of the blue-chip prospect he was, and has a cannon for an arm, and is probably the odds-on favorite to start Saturday. I think we'll only see both QBs if one struggles; their styles are so similar that it wouldn't really show Syracuse a different look to use a two-passer system.
If there's one Penn State player on offense that Syracuse fans need to aware, and scared, of, who is it? How bout on defense?
The one guy to watch out for on an offense loaded with playmakers is wide receive Allen Robinson, who literally rewrote the Penn State record books last year with a 77-catch, 1000-yard, 11-touchdown season that culminated with him winning the Big Ten's receiver of the year award. Oh, and he was just a sophomore last year who had basically no experience heading into 2012. He's a terrific deep threat, but Robinson's also got a terrific set of hands, a flair for making terrific catches, and some nice open field moves. In other words, he's a young quarterbacks' best friend. Defensively, Penn State's best player is probably defensive end Deion Barnes, who came on late in his freshman season to become one of the more consistent pass rushers in the Big Ten. He'll struggle a bit against the run (especially against the option), and now that he's a known commodity, coaches will plan around slowing him down, but he's a physical specimen with a terrific motor. Also, keep an eye out for Adrian Amos at safety, who played well at corner last year but returns back to his natural position. He's a ballhawk who can lay the boom.
We can read the team previews and figure out who the stars are, but who is the diamond in the rough that no one knows about who could have a big impact on the game?
Zach Zwinak came out of nowhere--well, from the backup fullback spot--to run for 1000 yards (exactly!) last year, but he won't be asked to carry all the load this year at running back. Bill Belton was expected to be the starter last season, but got banged up early and never seemed to regain BOB's trust. Reports out of practice indicate that he's had a terrific camp, and when he's had the opportunity, Belton's been a nice, speedy counterweight to Zwinak's bruising style--he actually ran for 103 yards and 3 TDs on just 16 carries against Iowa last year. Behind Belton is redshirt freshman Akeel Lynch, who's received plenty of hype, too, and Penn State fans are excited to see him get some playing time. On defense, Mike Hull might not be a household name, but it's really just a matter of time. He was Penn State's fourth linebacker last year, but his anointment as the heir to Michael Mauti and the tradition of Linebacker U has been a long time coming.
Okay, let's talk about the pink elephant in the room. There's probably no fanbase in the nation who knows somewhat what you guys went through like Syracuse fans. Having been through it, we understand the defensive reaction by many PSU fans, as well as the desire to disappear behind cheers and rah-tah mentality. What is the honest state of the Penn State fan psyche these days? Beaten down? Moving on? Somewhere in between?
There are plenty of fractures within the Penn State fanbase and community--between those who want to move on, those who still want to fight the sanctions with everything they've got, those who are still deeply distrustful of the administration, especially Athletic Director David Joyner, and those who have just kind of gone in a shell and disassociated as much as they can. Generally, most opposing fans have started to come around and understand that we're not all enablers of child rape, that Penn State isn't some freakish cult, and that the football team and its fans were just innocent bystanders caught in a wave of media hysteria. The sanctions continue to loom large, we can't lie about that, but last year--and O'Brien's continued recruiting prowess--gave us hope that we can still compete, that these days won't be so dark, that we can just be football fans every Saturday in the fall. Nobody isn't going to keep their fingers crossed that the NCAA will come to its senses, or that one of the various lawsuits won't prevail, but there's a greater sense of acceptance, and a sense that the light at the end of the tunnel is pretty damn bright.
You guys are going to do terrible things to Rutgers from now on, right? Please?
Only if you can take care of Pitt. Actually, strike that. We'll beat up on them either way.
Game prediction? Penn State season prediction?
I think Penn State takes this one, and I think it's a relatively close, low-scoring game that's within one or two scores the whole way. I think both teams will struggle to find the end zones--that's what first-time starting quarterbacks tend to do--but I have a bit more faith in the Penn State front seven going up against the Syracuse OL than I do in Syracuse's defensive front against Penn State's line. Both teams are fairly weak at corner, but Penn State has more pieces who can take advantage. Similarly, Penn State's uniquely tailored to beat a team that blitzes as much as Syracuse does, given its extraordinary depth and talent at tight end--you'll see at least four guys get significant playing time there. Also, Penn State fans can attest to how much difficulty first-time head coaches have making adjustments in their first few games. There will be some brain farts that Shafer will have ironed out by October, but that doesn't help you in August. Gun to my head, let's say 20-13.