Coach: Joe Paterno (40th season, 343-116-3) 2004 record: 4-7 Big Ten finish: 2-6 (9th) 2004 I-A offensive rankings: Rushing: 81st (129.9 ypg) Passing: 90th (180.8 ypg) 2004 I-A defensive rankings: Rushing: 34th (129.3 ypg) Passing: 6th (162.3 ypg)
at Michigan State
Depth Chart: Offense
8 returning starters in red
Depth Chart: Defense
9 returning starters in red
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Paul Posluszny knew what he was getting into when he changed his number. The Penn State linebacker understood that by exchanging his No. 39 jersey for No. 31, he would invite comparisons to All-America predecessors Shane Conlan and Andre Collins.
Unlike Conlan, who anchored Penn State's 1986 national championship team, Posluszny has yet to experience a winning season. That doesn't sit well with the Aliquippa, Pa., native, who is a student of Nittany Lion football history.
"If we don't do our job and aren't successful, it would almost be like downgrading the legacy," said Posluszny, who ranked sixth in the Big Ten as a sophomore with 104 tackles. "Those players brought all this tradition to Penn State, and we don't want to be the guys who are known for ruining that tradition. It's our job to make sure we carry it on."
The defense appears ready to bear that burden this fall. Penn State returns nine starters from a unit that gave up the fewest points in the league last year. If everyone stays healthy, the Lions figure to be competitive in all their games.
The real challenge lies in reviving a dreadful offense. Penn State finished last in the Big Ten in scoring and total yardage in 2004, a performance so dismal that Joe Paterno spent the offseason wooing recruits with the promise of early playing time. Does that sound like an uncharacteristic concession? It should, considering the coach's tradionally freshman-phobic views. But the bigger surprise is that he might actually have succeeded.
If he's right, the Lions could make a quick return to bowl contention. If not, well, those No. 31 jerseys should still sell briskly at the campus bookstore.
Michael Robinson has already proven he is a phenomenal athlete. After moonlighting at just about every skill position the past three years, the fifth-year senior must prove he's a great quarterback. Penn State needs a strong season from Robinson to avoid fielding the Big Ten's lowest-scoring offense for the second straight year. If Robinson struggles, sophomore Anthony Morelli is waiting.
The Nittany Lions also need a better effort from the supporting cast. While Tony Hunt, Austin Scott and Rodney Kinlaw give the team a strong tailback rotation (assuming Scott recovers from off-season ankle surgery), the receiver corps and offensive line have been disappointments the past two years.
Sophomores Mark Rubin and Terrell Golden are the only scholarship wideouts coming back. They can expect a challenge from Paterno's stellar recruiting class. The most scrutinized newcomer will be Derrick Williams, a prep All-American who enrolled in January and took part in spring practice. He is expected to be an impact player for the Nittany Lions this year.
The Lions allowed only 15.3 points per game in '04, fewest in the Big Ten. It's going to be tough to improve on that statistic. With nine starters returning, the defense should be superb.
There's plenty of muscle up front. Tackles Ed Johnson, Scott Paxson, Jay Alford and John Shaw comprise an effective rotation, while senior ends Tamba Hali, Matthew Rice and Lavon Chisley are proven vets.
At linebacker, Posluszny and sophomore Dan Connor are just the sort of throwbacks Penn State relishes. They have great instincts, sideline-to-sideline range and an aggressive demeanor.
The secondary is stellar as well, with seniors manning all four starting positions. Alan Zemaitis is a shut-down cornerback, while counterpart Anwar Phillips and strong safety Calvin Lowry boast a wealth of experience. The Lions will miss departed free safety Andrew Guman, but Chris Harrell should have no trouble fitting in. He made 18 starts before redshirting last year with a neck injury.
Walk-ons Patrick Humes and Pat Rosenella will battle incoming recruit Kevin Kelly for the starting placekicker job. Kelly was deemed worthy of a scholarship, a perk the Lions rarely bestow on rookie kickers.
There's plenty of room for improvement in the return game. Penn State hasn't had a breakaway threat in years, but recruits Williams and Justin King could help fill that void.
The Joe-must-go drumbeat died down in November when the Lions defeated Indiana and Michigan State to end their '04 season. Then Williams and King announced they were coming to University Park, and suddenly Penn State's longtime coach wasn't looking like such a relic.
Victories on the recruiting trail will only go so far for JoePa, however. Another losing season won't sit well with Nittany Lions faithful. A schedule that begins with three straight home games -- against South Florida, Cincinnati and Central Michigan -- should help PSU get off to a decent start.