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Know your Northwestern football opponent, Week 9: Penn State

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Christian Hackenberg will lead another talent-stuffed Nittany Lion roster into Evanston in early November.

Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

With our Summer Guide now complete, you probably have a general sense of Northwestern's outlook for the coming season. But breaking down any given team's strengths and weaknesses doesn't paint a complete picture. To truly gauge a team's win-loss potential, analyzing the schedule is arguably just as important.

Come game week, we will have detailed, timely, matchup-based write-ups on each opponent, but in the interim, we present to you our Know Your Opponent series. It's our look ahead at all 12 teams on Northwestern's 2015 schedule. So by the time training camp rolls around, you'll have a fuller view of the upcoming season.

Today, we preview Penn State.

The Basics

Returning Starters: Offense - 9, Defense - 6
2014 Record: 7-6 (2-6 Big Ten)
Coach: James Franklin, 2nd year (7-6 at Penn State; 24-15 in 3 years at Vanderbilt)

The Stats

The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly of SB Nation and Football Outsiders. You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.

2014 S&P+ Overall Rank: 46
2014 S&P+ Offense Rank: 109
2014 S&P+ Defense Rank: 4
2015 S&P+ Projection: 37

2014 Capsule

The season started off well enough for the Nittany Lions. After surviving an opening-week scare from Central Florida, James Franklin's bunch handled Akron, snuck by Rutgers and blew out UMass to get to 4-0. But then Northwestern came to town and rolled in Happy Valley on homecoming weekend. And then after a bye, Penn Sate lost at Michigan, had another bye week, and proceeded to drop a tough one to the eventual national champions, Ohio State. Another loss to Maryland levelled their record at 4-4.

The Nittany Lions managed an ugly win against Indiana, and rolled Temple, but then fell to both Illinois and Michigan State to close the regular season at .500. A bowl game win over Boston College in an overtime thriller was nothing more than a consolation prize. Overall, the defense usually kept the Nittany Lions in games, but the offense was inconsistent at best. Christian Hackenberg showed his obvious talent at times, but struggled mightily under constant pressure behind a very shaky offensive line.

Offensive Overview

This was a young unit last year, and that that actually hasn't really changed. Hackenberg struggled through a rough sophomore campaign (12 TDs, 15 INTs) behind an offensive line that gave up 44 sacks. He took a beating and his confidence looked way down at certain points. Hackenberg has great size and a talented arm, and draft sites have him rated as a top prospect in the 2016 NFL Draft, but he's got to show more this season.

Penn State brings back top running back Akeel Lynch, who is very good once he gets to the second level, but loses tough between-the-tackles runner Zach Zwinak and multi-purpose back Bill Belton, who had almost as many carries as Lynch did. There is no experience behind Lynch, so his health is key. Four-star true freshman Saquon Barkley could see carries, as could redshirt freshmen Mark Allen, Nick Scott and Johnathan Thomas.

At wide receiver, the Nittany Lions have talent to spare; they bring back their top four from last year. DaeSean Hamilton is the leader of the group. Coming of an 82-catch, 899-yard campaign, the 6-foot-1, 211-pound rising sophomore should be one of the nation's top playmakers this year. Behind him are Geno Lewis  (55 catches last year), and talented rising sophomores Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall. The team lost its top tight end, Jesse James, to the NFL Draft, but has a talented trio to replace him in Kyle Carter, Adam Breneman and Mike Gesicki.

Up front, through, there are still major questions. As Bill Connelly wrote in his preview of the team:

"Only seven teams allowed more frequent sacks on passing downs. Only three teams allowed more run stuffs in the backfield. Only four teams created fewer downfield opportunities for their backs."

And that unit lost its top player from last year: left tackle Donovan Smith was a second-round of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. So, not only do the Nittany Lions need someone to replace Smith as Hackenberg's blindside protector, they need improvement across the board. Center Angelo Mangiro returns, along with the entire right side of the offense line.

Defensive Overview

Plain and simple, it was the defense that allowed James Franklin to sneak into a bowl game in his first year at the helm in Happy Valley. Up front, the Nittany Lions return man-beast Anthony Zettel. The 6-foot-4, 278-pound tackle had 17 tackles for a loss and eight sacks. He even tied for the team lead in interceptions with three. Also back is Zettel's running mate, massive Austin Johnson (6-foot-4, 325 pounds), who had six tackles for a loss a year ago. Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan, who combined for nine sacks and 18 tackles for loss last year, will surely be missed, though.

Tackling machine Mike Hull is gone from the linebacking corps, but Nyeem Wartman-White and Brandon Bell return. Four-star true freshmen Manny Bowen and Daiquan Kelly could see time, as could a bevy of redshirt freshmen. Whoever replaced Hull will have big shoes to fill. He had 107.5 tackles and 10.5 tackles for a loss while starting all 13 games last year.

In the secondary, Penn State returns stud Jordan Lucas (who will move from corer to safety to replace Adrian Amos) and the other starting safety from last year, Marcus Allen. Senior Trevor Williams mans one corner spot, but the real question is who will step up at the other. It likely will be someone without much experience. Sophomore Grant Haley is the most likely candidate, but classmate Christian Campbell and redshirt freshman Daquan Worley could also have big roles.

Three Players to Know

Christian Hackeberg (QB) - The immensely talented pocket-passer struggled holding on to the ball last year (21 turnovers), but put in a masterful performance in the Nittany Lions' bowl win (34-for-50, 371 yards, 4 TDs, 0 INTs). Northwestern's defense rattled him, sacking him four times, pick-sixing him once and recovering a fumble. But he has a great arm and, if he's behind a better offense line (admittedly a big "if"), he's one of the top quarterbacks in the conference.

DaeSean Hamilton (WR) - A matchup nightmare, Hamilton is big, strong and fast. His hands could use some improvement, but he is still just a redshirt sophomore. Nick VanHoose and Matt Harris will have their hands full, and will likely require plenty of safety help. Hamilton showed his immense potential with a 14-catch, 126-yard performance against Ohio State last year.

Jordan Lucas (S) - Lucas is moving from cornerback to safety, but it should not be too big of a transition. He led the team with nine pass breakups and was third with 47.5 tackles The rising senior is undoubtedly the leader of the secondary.

Behind Enemy Lines

Bill DiFilippo from SB Nation Penn State blog Black Shoe Diaries gives best and worst case scenarios for the Nittany Lions this season:

Best-case scenario:

Well the way I see it this year, Penn State will probably be favored in all but two games — Ohio State and Michigan State. So let's say that, in a best case scenario, the Nittany Lions win all 10 of those. I'm going to assume that even in a best case scenario, Ohio State's talent and coaching is unbeatable, so we'll call that a loss. Sparty will probably be a loss no matter what, but hell, this is a best case scenario, so let's call that a win, and Penn State finishes the year 11-1.

As for a bowl, I think the second-best team in the Big Ten would probably go to one of the New Year's Six bowls. I would like to take a trip to the Rose Bowl, so I'll guess Penn State would make it to the Rose Bowl, where it would beat Alabama. And of course, Penn State can build on its current recruiting class, end in the top-5 classes in America, and somehow convince Rashan Gary to come to Happy Valley. Christian Hackenberg wins the Heisman and comes back for his senior year, hungry for a national championship.

Worst case-scenario:

Penn State's biggest concerns — namely the offensive line and the amount of youth on the roster — are never really alleviated, so we see a lot of similarities between this year's team and last year's squad that had a ton of issues on offense. On defense, Penn State can't fully replace guys like Mike Hull and Adrian Amos, and that unit takes a sizable step back.

Things are rough from the start with a loss to Temple, San Diego State shocks the Nittany Lions, and Penn State loses four total conference games: Ohio State, Maryland, Michigan, Michigan State. The Nittany Lions go 6-6, limp to the Foster Farms Bowl, get waxed by Cal, and Hackenberg is joined in the NFL Draft by fellow redshirt junior Austin Johnson. In recruiting, Miles Sanders, Shane Simmons, Lavert Hill, Michal Menet, and all of the other really good players Penn State has pulled in so far flip to other schools. I cry a lot.

Season prediction:

I'll say 9-3, the offensive line comes together under year two of Herb Hand, and most of Penn State's youth isn't fazed by playing major college football. The team loses to a OSU, MSU, and a Michigan squad that has figured it all out by that point in the season. Other than that, Penn State looks generally not bad for most of the year and wins all of the games that it should. As for a bowl game, gimme the Outback Bowl, I suppose. That seems like a good time. Hackenberg probably goes pro, but Johnson stays for his senior year. And recruiting stays in the top-10, with one or two of the team's big targets - my mind goes to Ohio linebacker Brendan Ferns and/or Florida wide receiver Tre Nixon - decide to commit to the Nittany Lions.

Bill Connelly Says...

SB Nation college football guru Bill Connelly has been maniacally churning out previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here's an excerpt from his Penn State preview on the Nittany Lions' pass rush:

We're talking about the pass rush because it's about the only area of the defense that suffered any sort of loss. Barnes and Olaniyan were both solid, though it certainly bears mentioning that while they combined for nine sacks, dynamic Anthony Zettel had eight by himself. (He also had nine non-sack tackles for loss and eight passes defensed. He is fantastic.)

Sophomore end Garrett Sickels had two sacks in limited opportunities, and in Zettel, enormous Austin Johnson, and reserves Parker Cothren and Tarow Barney, PSU has one of the best sets of play-making tackles in the country. The line was so good that Shoop rarely had to rely on his linebackers; on a top-10, high-havoc defense, PSU linebackers combined for only four sacks, only one more than what safeties managed.

Final Thoughts

Penn State has fought hard through the post-Sandusky scandal years. The talent that they lost on the recruiting trail, and through transfers away from the school for that matter, has basically been replaced. The Nittany Lions have a lot of four-stars that are either incoming this year or should contribute as redshirt freshmen. James Franklin did a terrific job rebuilding Vanderbilt, and his team this year returns a lot of contributors. Northwestern went into Happy Valley and dominated last year after an underwhelming first few weeks, and this should be a intriguing matchup. Will Hackenberg figure out Northwestern's defense? More importantly, will his offensive line give him time to do so?

The Game

Date: Nov. 7
Time: TBD
Home/Away: Home
TV: TBA
Projected Betting Line: Penn State -3.5