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Know thy Opponent 2007: Penn State Nittany Lions

At least at this point in the season we'll know if we have anything going, or if it will be another shattered season. As a result, I think much of the pressure will be off of us as we head into State College for this game. The only way we will have any pressure in this game will be if we pull off an upset by beating Michigan or Ohio State and get some help with being in the Big Ten championship race. Losing both of those will likely mean we're out of the race and will have only bowl positioning to play for. With some of the early news about training camp, including early injuries (Dan Bick, Torri Williams) and suspensions (Brian Ellis) to a defense that could use those three players I doubt we'll be in much of a position to contend for a Big Ten championship at this point.

I was originally planning on heading to State College for this game. Some close friends of ours are Penn State alums and came to West Lafayette with us last year and we were going to return the favor. Two good high school friends of mine are also finishing up doctorate work at Penn State after completing their undergrad at Purdue, so I have a ton of respect for the Nittany Lions. Unfortunately our plans fell through as our friends are moving to Nashville and something more important came up. Since this may by Miami's last season in the Orange Bowl and my wife is an alum and hardcore fan, we will be heading to Miami that weekend for homecoming. It will be my first (and hopefully not last) game in the Orange Bowl. I will be finding a TV somewhere in Coconut Grove for our game, however, and changing jerseys as appropriate. It's a shame too, as I have heard that Penn State fans are among the most hospitable in the Big Ten.


Last Season for the Nittany Lions:


Last year the Nittany Lions did something that had not been done in 10 years, and that is shut us out. For 127 straight games we had at least managed a few points, and at the time it was the third longest active streak in the nation. As a result Penn State finished tied with us in the conference and rightfully got the higher bowl positioning. Their game plan against us was perfect. They stopped our offense cold and pounded the ball on the ground with Tony Hunt to control the clock. It's pretty sad when our most memorable play of the game was the lateral-frenzy on the final play in order to get a desperate score.


The rest of Penn State's season was fairly successful, as a 9-4 record and New Year's Day bowl win is a good year for most programs. What made things better was the fact Penn State was expected to struggle after winning the conference in 2005. All four losses were to quality opponents in Notre Dame, Michigan, Ohio State, and Wisconsin, while the best win was over Tennessee in the Outback Bowl. In reality their season wasn't much different from ours in that they beat who they were expected to beat. Only Minnesota and Tennessee joined us as teams that Penn State beat that went to bowl games and it's not like the Gophers or we were terribly inspiring. We were probably their best regular season win a year ago.


This year Penn State picks up Iowa and Indiana on its Big Ten Slate and loses Minnesota and Northwestern. Outside of the Notre Dame game the non-conference schedule is three guaranteed wins with FIU, Temple, and Buffalo. Penn State will go bowling again, it's just a question of where. More importantly, Penn State plays Wisconsin and Ohio State at home before this game, with a road trip to Michigan earlier in the year. They will already be through the worst of their schedule, and our game may be the last serious hurdle toward another conference championship.


Penn State Offense:


Last season it was a simple equation for the offense. Run Tony Hunt and have Anthony Morelli make a few plays to give the defense just enough to finish the job. It was quite an effective strategy as Hunt had a 1300 yard, 11 touchdown season and Morelli started to show some signs of playing up to his vast potential. He is back this year and has a fantastic group of receivers to throw to. Much of the offense will be up to him as Penn State will probably open things up quite a bit, at least by Penn State standards.


Last season Morelli threw for 2,424 yards and just 11 touchdowns. He struggled in big games, but had a pretty good bowl game against Tennessee. This year he is expected to have a much better year thanks to three fantastic receivers in Derrick Williams, Deon Butler, and Jordan Norwood. All three are juniors with speed to be deep threats, and the hands to be possession receivers as well. Oh yeah, they all have a ton of experience as juniors as well. This may be the sternest test our secondary will face all year, and the only reason I see for diminished production from all three of them is if Morelli has a bad year. Andrew Quarless also a quality tight end and is certainly talented enough to draw his own coverage.


Replacing Hunt will be Austin Scott, who missed all of last year with an ankle injury. He ran for 110 yards in the Orange Bowl two years ago and was recruited to be the next great Penn State running back in the same line as Curtis Enis, Ki-Jana Carter, Larry Johnson, and Hunt. Backing him up will be Rodney Kinlaw, while Matt Hahn will be used as a fullback that can both run the ball and catch a few passes out of the backfield. The running game will certainly be strong enough to complement what should be a dynamic passing game, and Penn State has always been able to run the ball.


Up front the offensive line will need to replace Levi Brown at left tackle, who was only the fifth overall pick in April's NFL draft by the Cardinals. Gerald Cadogan looks to be the top candidate to replace him, and is a good athlete at 6'5", 313 pounds. Dennis Landolt is the other tackle and may shift over to the left side because of his experience. A.Q. Shipley returns at center and started every game last year, so there is plenty of experience in the middle. Both guard spots are a little questionable, but John Shaw and Lou Eliades look to be the starters as of right now. The questions are minor, however, and the line should be fine.


Penn State Defense:


What else should from a university that prides itself on being Linebacker U.? Dan Connor is simply next in line now that Paul Posluszny has moved on to the NFL. Connor played on the outside last year and registered 113 tackles and five sacks. Now he is in the middle and will be a traffic cop that no one wants to run into. He plays all over the field and will possibly be the best linebacker in the country. CFN has him listed as Penn State's best player and star of the defense. Sean Lee is number two on that list and will stay outside after being third in tackles for the team last year, and provides a nice balance of hitting and tackling ability. The third spot has several talented prospects and certainly won't be a weakness.


The defensive line is the weakest part of the defense, and that is only because they lack experience. Graduation and a nasty off-the field incident involving Chris Baker have left the line fairly thin. Baker could play, but must clear up his issues first. Josh Gaines is the only returning starter at end, and had a pair of sacks last year. Phil Taylor (337 pounds) and Abe Koroma (312 pounds) provide a solid wall that no one will want to run against. They may not get into the backfield much, but they are still huge guys to go around.


The secondary also faces some off-the-field issues as Anthony Scirotto was involved in the same incident as Baker and faces stronger charges. At safety he had six interceptions last year and it would be a huge blow to the defense if he is unavailable. Justin King is a true #1 lockdown corner and will be a guy that can shut down almost anyone he's paired up with, leaving the rest of the defense free to concentrate on everyone else. Tony Davis is moving over to the other safety spot, but the strength of this unit will depend on Scirotto's availability.


The unit at a whole features just enough questions to make it a bit of a concern after being very strong last year. Still, we have never been able to exactly move the ball at will against Penn State no matter who they have had, and this year will be no different.


Penn State Special Teams:


Kevin Kelly attempted an astounding 34 field goals last year, nearly three a game. He was able to hit on 22 of them, including two of three against us that proved to be the difference in our game. He's got good range and may be the best kicker in the Big Ten. Jeremy Boone is the new punter, and is unproven at best.


The return game will be a test for us as Derrick Williams is a fantastic punt returner and A.J. Wallace is expected to be a fantastic returner on kickoffs. Last year we did a good job of containing almost every return game, but we will be tested this year.


Intangibles:


I can't believe I have written almost 1,700 words already and not once mentioned JoePa. He's an institution at Penn State, one of the best coaches to ever walk the sidelines, and truly one of the classiest guys in all of football. Penn State fans love him, and I have never had a negative thought or word about the man. I am glad to him bounce back strong after his knee injury on the sideline last year, and honestly there isn't a coach I like more in college football than JoePa. He provides a huge edge for Penn state in almost any game, as he's probably forgotten more about the game of football than most coaches know.


Penn State also will have another 100,000 plus crowd on hand in what is one of the loudest venues in the country. If they hold serve at home before this game they will likely be playing for the Big Ten championship at the time, and with that on the line. It is also senior day for the Nittany Lions to add even more of a festival atmosphere.


Game Outlook:


The outlook doesn't look very good, but I feel we have a much better shot at winning than we do at Michigan. This could be a shootout with two pretty good offenses, or it could be a blowout. I honestly feel like much of it depends on how well each team is doing at this point in the season. A split between Michigan and Ohio State for us and Penn State holding serve at home likely makes this an unexpected big game as far as the conference title race goes. If both teams have just one loss in the conference at this point, the winner will be right there with Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ohio State in the discussion. Penn State could actually go a long way in helping us by beating those three.


Unlike Michigan, we've also actually won in Happy Valley recently, and have a few players that remember what is like. Because of the weird quirks of the schedule it will be the third trip there for many of our seniors, and that can only help. It will take a strong effort by our guys, but I think we certainly can pull off the victory, whether we actually will or not is another matter.


PREDICTION:


I don't think we will win, but I hope to celebrate a bit on South Beach after being proven wrong. Penn State is too strong, especially at home. We have a chance, but it will take a lot. Penn State 31, Purdue 24.