We're counting down the weeks until kickoff by profiling a different Big Ten team each week. With Corey on his honeymoon, he handed me the keys to the weekly Sneak Peek. Today, we take a look at Great Grandpa Joe's Nittany Lions.
Most of the experts have PSU recording double digit wins this season which would be only the second time this millennium that Joe Pa reached the ten win plateau (11-1, '05). In fact, Joe Pa's program has gone just 55-42 since 2000 and that's including back to back 9-4 campaigns following the '05 run.
With the recent glut of Lions on the police blotter and the subsequent bad press, a disappointing 2008 season could force the university to finally rid themselves of their 137 year old coach and start anew. Lucky for Joe, the non-conference schedule features some serious cupcakes and they get a few key toss-up type conference games in Beaver.
COACHING: Paterno enters his 43rd year at the helm and currently trails Bobby Bowden by one W on the all-time wins list. With a soft schedule, he could regain the lead although no one should expect the Lions to pull any road upsets. According to Steele, Joe Pa's troops haven't beaten a ranked team on the road since a 2002 win over #19 Wisconsin. Further illustrating the decline is his nine straight losses to Michigan and a 13-25 road record in the last eight seasons. I know he's Joe Freaking Paterno but can you imagine if Ohio State held on to a coach with these stats?
OFFENSE: If the Lions receive decent QB play from Sr. Daryll Clark and/or So. Pat Devlin, they should put up some points with the conversion back to a spread offense. Helping the inexperienced signal callers will be an offensive line that returns five starters led by Sr. center AQ Shipley.
In the backfield, So. Evan Royster is a decent sized tailback who put up a solid 6.3 ypc in backup duties last season while redshirt frosh Stephon Green brings his 4.2 40-time and lots of hype from the spring game into fall camp. The duo gives PSU a solid power/speed combo but the real offensive strength projects to be at wide receiver.
Thus far, senior WR's Derrick Williams, Jordan Norwood, and Deon Butler have failed to live up the hype they came in with but the trio did manage to combine for 1,600+ yards and and 12 TD's last season. With the aforementioned return to the spread and inexperience at QB, I can only assume a big part of the game plan will be to get these guys the ball on short routes and look for big chunks of YAC, especially in man coverage against the lesser teams on the schedule.
DEFENSE: The defense projects to be solid but the defensive line has taken one kick to the cup after another with the loss of three defensive linemen in the last month.
First, Chris Baker and Phil Taylor were booted from the team in late July after Paterno felt the heat of an ESPN Outside the Lines piece that chronicled PSU's recent off-field troubles including on campus fights involving Baker and Taylor. More recently, Devon Still broke his ankle in practice requiring 8-10 weeks recovery time.
The good news is PSU has significant depth along the defensive line and should be able to overcome the losses in most matchups. On the outside, All Big Ten DE Maurice Evans will do his part to negatively impact opposing passing attacks.
The linebacking corps at Linebacker U#2 is a little thin on experience with the loss of Dan Conner to the NFL combined with Sean Lee's season ending knee injury suffered in spring ball. Sr. Tyrell Sales will be one starter with a pair of lesser experienced sophomores in Chris Colasanti and Bani Gbadyu expected to see plenty of action. These guys have talent but it will be up to the remaining d-lineman to free up the LB's to make plays.
In the secondary, an experienced if not overly impressive group is led by All Big Ten Sr. Anthony Scirrotto. This assumes the team captain doesn't partake in any more fights prior to opening kickoff.
KEY GAME: The conference opener at home against Illinois will be a big one. PSU should come in to the game 4-0 and will look to keep the momentum going against Zooker before back to back road games at Purdue and Wisconsin before hosting Michigan. Considering Joe Pa's road struggles, capturing the conference opener could be the key in avoiding an 0-3 (or worse) conference start.
BEST-CASE: If the Lions can hold serve against the Illini and capture one of the two first road games they could be on their way to 9-3 heading into the bowl game.
WORST-CASE: If the defense struggles to overcome the losses up front and the injury to Lee, that could put some pressure on the two QB's to outscore opponents. Road losses to Purdue, Wisconsin, Ohio State and potential home losses to an improved Michigan State team and Michigan (10 straight?!) and the Lions could be looking at a worst case of 7-5 heading into the bowl game.
I'm anxious to see how the season unfolds for this team and this coach. It will be a roller coaster if they stumble on or off the field. If they get off to a bad start in conference, you have to wonder if the press and fanbase will turn on the fossil running the show. It's a shame that most Buckeye fans now view Paterno the same way we did Lloyd, meaning we'd all prefer he stay forever because he's just good enough to be decent but not good enough to threaten OSU.