Coach: James Franklin (7-6, entering second season; 31-21 overall record)
2014 record: 7-6, 2-6 in Big Ten Conference; sixth in the East Division
Look back: James Franklin and his staff were facing quite the challenge taking over a Penn State program under NCAA sanctions. But despite the restrictions, the Nittany Lions opened the season by winning its first four games, including a thrilling come-from-behind win over UCF in Ireland. It was the first time the program opened with four consecutive wins since 2008.
But the quick start didn’t last as the team dropped its next four games, including hard-fought contests against Michigan, Maryland and a double-overtime loss to eventual Big Ten champs Ohio State. The Nittany Lions split their final four games and a late reversal by the NCAA allowed Penn State into a bowl game for the first time since 2010.
Offensive starters returning: 7
Offensive starters lost: 4
Defensive starters returning: 7
Defensive starters lost: 4
Key losses: RB Bill Belton, OL Miles Dieffenbach, TE Jesse James, OL Donovan Smith, S Adrian Amos, DE Deion Barnes, LB Mike Hull, DE C.J. Olaniyan, K Sam Ficken
Top returnees: QB Christian Hackenberg, TE Kyle Carter, OL Brian Gala, WR DaeSean Hamilton, WR Eugene Lewis, OL Angelo Mangiro, OL Andrew Nelson, S Marcus Allen, LB Brandon Bell, DT Austin Johnson, CB Jordan Lucas, LB Nyeem Wartman, Trevor Williams, DT Anthony Zettel
Strengths: Penn State’s defense rebounded under first-year defensive coordinator Bob Shoop in a big way. The Nittany Lions were first in the Big Ten in both scoring defense (18.6 points per game) and total defense (278.7 yards per game), finishing the season ranked second in the nation in total defense. The group allowed a league-best 2.9 yards per carry on the ground. The defensive front four returns two solid players in Anthony Zettel (8 sacks, 9 tackles for loss) and Austin Johnson (49 tackles), while Nyeem Wartman (75 tackles) and Brandon Bell (47 tackles) shore up the linebacker position as the team looks to replace Mike Hull (140 tackles) in the middle.
Penn State finished third in the Big Ten in pass defense, allowing just 178.2 yards per game through the air. The secondary returns three of its four starters that combined for 14 pass break ups in 2014.
Weaknesses: As one of the nation’s youngest teams, Penn State found itself going through a bit of growing pains in 2014, especially offensively. The Nittany Lions ranked last in the Big Ten in scoring offense (20.6 points per game) and next-to-last in total offense (335.3 yards per game). After a successful debut as a freshman, quarterback Christian Hackenberg took a step backward – completing just 56 percent of his passes while throwing just 12 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. To be fair, Hackenberg was sacked a Big Ten-worst 44 times in 2014, adding to an already staggering 65 sacks in 25 career starts.
Eight different players started on the offensive line last season. Four of those starters will be back, led by Angelo Mangiro, who saw action at three different spots last season.
The Nittany Lions ranked last in the conference in rushing offense,, with just 101.9 yards per game as the team rushed for a league-worst 2.9 yards per carry. Bill Belton started 10 of the team’s 13 games in 2014, rushing for 526 yards and six touchdowns. Following his departure, the team will lean on junior Akeel Lynch.
Sam Ficken was one of the most dependable kickers in the Big Ten, connecting on 24-of-29 field goals in 2014, including the game-winner against UCF. His exit leaves the program looking for a new kicker, with former punter Chris Gulla and freshman Joey Julius in the mix.
Outlook: Much of Penn State’s offensive woes centered around the offensive line. Strengthen the group and you should see improvement in the running game. That, in turn, should take some pressure off of Hackenberg and allow him to bounce back from a sub-par 2014 season. The schedule should help, with five of Penn State’s first six games in Happy Valley.
Sept. 5 at Temple
Sept. 12 Buffalo
Sept. 19 Rutgers
Sept. 26 San Diego State
Oct. 3 Army
Oct. 10 Indiana
Oct. 17 at Ohio State
Oct. 24 vs. Maryland
Oct. 31 Illinois
Nov. 7 at Northwestern
Nov. 21 Michigan
Nov. 28 at Michigan State
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