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Dr. Saturday

Debriefing: New year, new division, but Penn State still runs in place

Graham Watson
Dr. Saturday

The least you should know about the 2011 Nittany Lions. Part of Big Ten Week.

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Never can say goodbye. Joe Paterno is heading into his 46th season with Penn State, and he's not talking retirement. He knows this year's Nittany Lions are going to be a work in progress and could have a tough row to hoe right out of the gate, especially with an unsettled quarterback situation, and he's not about to go out on another mediocre note.

The schedule does not set up nicely. After opening against Indiana State, the Nittany Lions have a brutal test against Alabama. The schedule lightens a bit before a November that includes games against Nebraska, at Ohio State and at Wisconsin.

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The Lions have 12 starters returning, but a lot of question marks at major positions, including the offensive and defensive lines, and this can't be stressed enough, quarterback.

While things look rough, it's important to note Penn State hasn't had a losing season since 2004. In fact, last year's 7-6 campaign was the first time the Nittany Lions had failed to win at least nine games since that losing year. A nine-win season is going to be tough with so much uncertainty in the trenches, the tough schedule, and did I mention the quarterback situation?

That Alabama game will tell us all we need to know about how far the Nittany Lions have to come before hitting that brutal November stretch that will ultimately determine a winning or losing season.

Not much on the line these days. Penn State's defensive line didn't do the offense many favors a year ago. It couldn't tackle, gave up too much ground in the running game, couldn't get to the quarterback and allowed those signal callers to complete 61 percent of their passes, which negated the Nittany Lions' biggest strength, their pass defense.{YSP:MORE}

And the future isn't getting any brighter. Senior defensive end Jack Crawford, the top returning tackler on the line, missed all of spring after having offseason foot surgery, junior Pete Massaro suffered a torn ACL during spring ball and is out for the season, and end Eric Latimore is coming off season-ending wrist surgery. While Crawford and Latimore are expected back and healthy, there's little to no depth. In short, the two-deep on the defensive line is either out for the season, coming off injury or has never played a collegiate down. And with that early game against Alabama, a team with the Heisman frontrunner at running back, there is no learning curve.

A secondary observation. The ineffective pass rush, which netted just 17 sacks last year, overshadowed a pretty decent secondary that somehow still managed to rank 16th nationally with just 181.23 passing yards allowed. However, that number is a bit misleading considering the defensive line didn't do much to stop opposing running games in a run-heavy league.

But I digress. With three of four starters back, the secondary is the bright spot on this defense, featuring top tackler D'Anton Lynn at cornerback, and safeties Drew Astorino and Nick Sukay have some experience as seniors. But in order for the pass defense to really be effective, the defensive front, including linebackers Michael Mauti, Gerald Hodges, Khairi Fortt and Nate Stupar, who were all hurt at different points a year ago, needs to be better.

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