The dawn of August means pre-season camps are upon us. It also means that it’s time to rekindle the decade-long tradition of telling you the story of 2013…before 2013 happens.
I’ve come a long way since 2004 (when the offense-devoid Lions did not indeed make it to the Rose Bowl that I predicted). But even when my predictions miss the mark completely, you can trust that I’ve researched our Lions and our opponents well.
A couple of basic premises that I’m assuming this season as I create these.
1—Our defense is going to take a step back this year. You don’t lose three NFL draft picks off the front 7 and improve. Sorry. I’d be more optimistic if our defensive recruiting had been more stellar of late but Notre Dame and Florida beat us for key recruits in Paterno’s last years and Ohio State sapped us post-scandal. The cupboard simply is not stocked to normal Penn State standards.
2—Bill O’Brien and the offensive coaching staff will get the most out of what we have on that side of the ball. It’s feasible to expect similar success as last year on offense. We return a solid core of players everywhere except quarterback. Which bring me to point #3…
3—I’m going to assume that true freshman Christian Hackenberg gets the start at quarterback this year. It’s hard to predict an entire season when you don’t know who will play the most important position on the field, but if you think I’m being too optimistic in my thoughts about the quarterback spot, refer back to point #2.
Arguably the two most storied programs of the Northeast squared off in the season opener at the Meadowlands. Hackenberg looked every bit the part of a high school quarterback in over his head, fumbling twice and getting picked off once in the first three quarters of play. Fortunately for Penn State, Syracuse also suffered inexperience at quarterback and a tipped pass was caught and returned for a touchdown by safety Adrian Amos, giving Penn State a 13-7 lead at halftime. Penn State trailed 17-13 after an abysmal 3rd quarter (a flaw of the 2012 Penn State team as well), but put together an impressive 78-yard drive (capped off by a 9-yard Zack Zwinak TD run) to take the lead with 8:03 remaining in the game. Sam Ficken tacked on a field goal to allow Penn State to survive 23-17 in an ugly, ugly season opener.
Penn State 23, Syracuse 17
Key Stats: Hackenberg 13-28, 134 yards, 0 TD, 1 int; Amos, 6 tackles, 3 PBU, 1 int., 1 TD
Beaver Stadium welcomed the latest installment of its Nittany Lions with a curious but hopeful crowd of 101,000. Eastern Michigan was just the team Penn State needed to find some confidence and some rhythm. Hackenberg showed everyone why he was the top-rated high school quarterback last season, throwing for 273 yards and 3 touchdowns. Zwinak tallied over 100 yards in the first half alone, and the defense held Eastern Michigan under 300 yards for the day. Penn State even got their second string (dotted heavily with run-ons and redshirt frehshmen) some playing time in the 55-13 blowout.
Eastern Michigan 13, Penn State 55
Key Stats: Zack Zwinak 18 carries, 139 yards, 2 TDs; Deion Barnes, 4 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 sack.
Defensive coordinator John Butler sure wished Mike Mauti had one more year of eligibility left. The Golden Knight offense—led by QB Blake Bortles—stormed Beaver Stadium, sustaining the long, grueling drives that O’Brien excelled in during the 2012 season. The halftime scoreboard didn’t cause concern (18-14 Penn State) but the time of possession did (20-10 in favor of UCF). Storm Johnson ran wild in the third quarter with two long TD runs, and Penn State’s young quarterback couldn’t connect with his mostly-open downfield targets. Back-up running back Akeel Lynch broke loose for a 32-yard TD with 5:31 in the 4th quarter to pull the Lions within 3 points (32-35), but the defense just couldn’t make a stop, as Johnson and Bortles converted 3rd down after 3rd down with their legs. The Knights couldn’t ice the game with a score, but the damage was done, as Penn State had just :45 to march 83 yards. The offense couldn’t get past midfield and Penn State suffered its first loss of the season.
UCF 35, PSU 32
Key Stats: UCF Blake Bortles 23-33, 238 yards, 2 TD, 0 int., 8 rushes, 57 yards, 1 TD; Hackenberg 14-30, 208 yards, 2 TD, 2 int.
Penn State knows what it means to fight back from disappointing early season losses. Rebounding from a close loss to a solid UCF team seemed like a cinch considering last year’s two opening losses. Kent State—last year’s CFB Cinderella—didn’t have enough returning (including coach Darrell Hazell’s defection to Purdue) to put up a fight in State College against an angry Lions’ squad. A steady diet of Zwinak and Lynch, mixed in with extensive short passing to the full stable of tight ends, helped Penn State score on its first five possessions and march to a 31-10 lead. Sensational RB Dri Archer did bust loose twice in the second half, but it wasn’t enough to sustain a comeback. PSU finished out their out-of-conference slate 3-1 with a decisive 41-27 win over the Golden Flashes.
Kent State 27, Penn State 41
Key Stats: PSU tight ends 13 rec., 196 yards, 3 TDs; DaQuan Jones 3 tkls., 2 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 2 deflections
Following a restful bye week, Penn State traveled to Indiana, and the 2-2 Hoosiers gave them a rude awakening, bolting to a 10-0 first quarter lead. Hackenberg found Allen Robinson running wild through the Indiana secondary on three occasions in the 2nd quarter though, which set up seventeen Penn State points to create a deadlock at halftime. The Lions broke the 17-17 tie with a 9-yard Hackenberg bootleg TD on the first possession of the 3rd quarter and never looked back. The ground game wore down the Hoosiers late (21-9 T.O.P advantage for PSU in the second half), and PSU escaped Bloomington with its all-time win streak over Indiana intact via a 35-24 win.
PSU 35, Indiana 24
Key Stats: Allen Robinson 8 rec., 178 yards, 2 TDs, 2 carries, 33 yards; Mike Hull 9 tackles, 1 sack, 1 int.
Usually schools schedule cream puffs for homecoming. Not the 2013 Nittany Lions. Penn State scheduled mighty Michigan. The 6pm start also fed the frenzy in Happy Valley, but without a post-season to look forward to, hosting the #23 Wolverines (4-1) felt like a bowl game for the Nittany Nation. The two teams played conservatively in the first half, with Michigan eking out a 9-6 halftime lead. O’Brien threw away the first half script though at the beginning of the 3rd quarter. Hackenberg threw on 6 of 9 plays of a 82-yard TD drive, including a 6-yarder to TE Kyle Carter. After UM freshman back Derrick Green rumbled 14 yards for a TD, Penn State tied the game with a Ficken field goal late in the quarter. The 4th quarter saw the teams trade time-chomping methodical TD drives until LB Nyeem Wartman knocked the ball from QB Devin Gardner’s hands on a 3rd and 6. LB Josh Hull scooped the ball and returned it 51 yards for a score, putting PSU up 23-16. Michigan drove right back down the field though in desperate need of a touchdown. On 4th and 3 from the 15-yard line in front of a supersonic student section, Gardner couldn’t get away from DT DaQuan Jones and the collapsing pocket. PSU—after extending the winning streak vs. Michigan to 4 games—felt inspired heading into a bye week with a 5-1 record; Michigan, on the other hand, hoped that they weren’t headed to another ho-hum 8-4 regular season. Or worse.
#23 Michigan 23, PSU 30
Key Stats: Hackenberg 17-25, 206 yards, 1 TD, 0 int.; RBs Touissant and Green 31 carries, 209 yards, 2 TDs, 4 rec., 55 yards, 1 rec. TD
Come back tomorrow for the second half of the season. Can the Lions go into Columbus and upset the Buckeyes? Will they knock off top-25 foes Nebraska and Wisconsin to close the season? Can they be champs of the soon-to-be-extinct Leaders Division (even if ineligible for the post-season)?