Big Ten football preview: Penn State Nittany Lions

Big Ten football preview: Penn State Nittany Lions
August 4, 2013, 10:00 am
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Vinnie Duber

Bill O’Brien did the unthinkable last year.

In the wake of one of the worst scandals in NCAA history, O’Brien took the reins of a football program that was slammed with sanctions. The Nittany Lions wouldn’t be playing in the postseason for four years. Dozens of players transferred. Joe Paterno lost his job, and shortly thereafter, his life.

The program wasn’t just disgraced. It was in shambles.

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But, on the field, O’Brien did a lot to change that. O’Brien led the Lions to an 8-4 season, including six conference wins and a second-place finish in the Leaders Division. The Lions scored wins over a ranked Northwestern team and an overtime victory in the season finale against Wisconsin. The job he did following such tumult earned him honors as the Big Ten Coach of the Year.

O’Brien is doing his best to put the success of last season behind him. The cloud the sanctions brought will continue to loom, as 2013 will be just year No. 2 of the bowl ban. But the upcoming season is all the head coach wants to discuss.

“You know, a lot of the things that we talked about last year when I was here, it's water under the bridge,” O’Brien said at Big Ten media day. “We're in a situation at Penn State right now that is unprecedented, sure. But at the same time I've said this over and over again, our staff, myself, we're thankful for our players. Our players are tough. They're resilient. They're good kids. They're hardworking. They go to class, and we're looking forward to working with those guys.

“The rules are what they are. And that's what we play under. And that's what we're going to do. So we're excited about the season, and again just really want to concentrate on the 2013 season.”

Last year

Record: 8-4 (6-2 Big Ten)

Bowl: Under NCAA sanctions, the Nittany Lions were ineligible for postseason play.

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At the helm

Bill O’Brien is heading into his second season as the head man at Penn State. He took over the program at a shocking time following the high-profile scandal that led to the firing of Joe Paterno, who had served as the Nittany Lions head coach for decades. O’Brien was named Big Ten Coach of the Year for the surprising season the team had following the chaos.

On the 2013 schedule

The Nittany Lions open their season against Syracuse in a neutral site game at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey. They’ll then get easier opponents at home in Eastern Michigan, Central Florida and Kent State.

The conference slate shapes up to be a tough one, featuring two difficult road tests against Ohio State and Wisconsin. The two hardest home games figure to be Nebraska and Michigan, but the Lions have won three straight against the Wolverines.

Under center

Senior Matt McGloin threw all of eight passes for the Lions last season, leading the Big Ten with 3,271 passing yards and 24 touchdown tosses. But McGloin moved on after 2012, and now it’s up to true freshman Christian Hackenberg and/or sophomore Tyler Ferguson to fill those shoes. O’Brien discussed his upcoming QB battle at media day.

“One thing that’s really exciting about working with young quarterbacks is that you get a chance to really mold that quarterback,” O’Brien said. “You get a chance to really teach that quarterback. And (quarterbacks coach) Charlie Fisher and I are going to do that and work hard at teaching our quarterbacks how to play in our offense and managing a game and play smart, tough Penn State football. We are excited about that. We are going to have to make a decision at some point during training camp to allow the starter to get enough reps to be ready for the Syracuse game. It sure is exciting for us, a challenge for us and we are looking forward to it.”

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Back in the fold

The Lions only have six returning starters on defense, but one of those is senior middle linebacker Glenn Carson. Carson ranked third on the team last year in tackles with 85, trailing only departed linebackers Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti. Now it’s time for Carson to take the torch.

After all, what would “Linebacker U” be without a standout at the linebacker position?

“Glenn is certainly a guy you would describe as high-character guy, very intense, heart-and-soul type of guy,” O’Brien said. “Glenn's not a real rah-rah guy. Glenn is very serious about his position as the middle linebacker at Penn State. He understands the tradition of linebackers at Penn State and obviously ‘Linebacker U.’ ... He was a leader last year. He's a leader right now, and we're looking forward to him having a really good year for us. He, again, is another guy that you would say as it relates to Penn State, he's what being a Penn State football player is all about.”

Season outlook

No one expected a six-win conference campaign for Penn State last season, but the team will likely have everyone’s attention in 2013. The Lions should avoid the type of post-scandal stumbles they had against weak competition in the early going last year, making their chances to repeat as eight-game winners very good.