Breaking down any given team's strengths and weaknesses doesn't paint a complete picture. To truly gauge a team's win-loss potential in the preseason, analyzing the schedule is arguably just as important. We will have detailed, timely, matchup-based write-ups on each opponent in the week leading up. In the interim, we present to you our Northwestern opponent summer look ahead. It's a little thing called "Know Your Opponent." The title describes itself: take a peek at the schedule, read up and head into the fall having already completed part of your weekly opponent studying diet.
Returning starters: Offense - 4 Defense - 6
2013 Record: 7-5 (4-4 Big Ten)
Coach: James Franklin, 1st Year
Bill O'Brien put in another solid year at Penn State before bolting to the NFL. Even after the Sandusky scandal and the handful of sanctions handed down by the NCAA, O'Brien found a way to get eight wins in 2012 and seven wins last year. The Nittany Lions won four conference games, including big victories at Wisconsin and at home against Michigan. Despite the seven-win season and third place finish in the Big Ten leaders division, the bowl ban kept Penn State out of postseason play for another year.
Rarely do Big Ten offenses function under a true freshman quarterback as well as Penn State's did with Christian Hackenberg. The 6-foot-4 play caller threw for almost 3000 yards and 20 touchdowns, helping Penn State finish 38th in the country in passing yards per game. In 2014, Hackenberg will lose his top target and PSU's biggest offensive threat Allen Robinson, who went for a massive 1432 receiving yards last season. The sophomore quarterback will be tested with just one returning offensive lineman and no go-to receiver. Penn State will probably rely more on the ground game since their bruising backfield duo of Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton returns for 2014.
The Nittany Lions are strong up front and know how to stop the run. They held Wisconsin running backs Melvin Gordon and James White to under 150 yards last season, leading PSU to a victory at Camp Randall. The Nittany Lions lose leading tackler Glenn Carson and defensive tackle DaQuan Jones but they still have a deep front seven capable of winning the battle at the line of scrimmage. The questions lie in the secondary. Opponents got big plays off breakdowns in Penn State's defensive backfield last season. James Franklin will need cornerback Jordan Lucas and safety Adrian Amos to prevent deep plays by coordinating an experienced secondary.
Three Players to Know
Christian Hackenberg, QB - Penn State's quarterback had an extremely successful true freshman season, but it will be difficult to improve on last year after losing star wideout Allen Robinson. A true pocket passer, Hackenberg will have to spread the ball around more to win in 2014.
Zach Zwinak, RB - The senior back just missed back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons when he rushed for 989 yards last season. He will split time with PSU's other senior back Bill Belton, but Zwinak's their man for punching it into the end zone, totaling 12 touchdowns on the ground last season.
C.J. Olaniyan, DE - On top of 50 tackles, Olaniyan posted 5 sacks and 11 total tackles for loss in 2013. Olaniyan will be valuable in stopping the run and helping out the secondary by getting in a good pass rush. There will be some rotation on PSU's D-line since they are so deep there, but Olaniyan should make the most of his senior year.
Northwestern cannot underestimate any of its first three opponents, but Penn State is the first big test on the schedule. NU's offensive line will be challenged by Penn State's complex defensive front, so getting the ground game going will be tough. And the 'Cats didn't perform well against strong running backs last year. That said, it will be James Franklin's first Big Ten game at PSU, and the 'Cats are much more experienced than the Nittany Lions, who have just ten returning starters. It should be a tight one in Happy Valley, where Northwestern hasn't won since 2004.