Michigan State DE Kenny Willekes talks Beaver Stadium
The Penn State football season is nearly here. Finally.
So, with the opener a little more than three weeks away, we decided to look at the entire Nittany Lions’ schedule — from Idaho on Aug. 31 to Rutgers on Nov. 30 — so you can brush up on your 2019 opponents.
Who should you keep an eye on, and what should you expect from each team? Take a look:
Game 1: vs. Idaho (3:30 p.m. Aug. 31)
2018 record: 4-7 (FCS; T-9 Big Sky)
Last meeting: N/A (First meeting)
Player to watch: QB Mason Petrino. He’s the son of the head coach, and it’s his senior season. He threw 15 touchdowns to eight INTs last season, and he was also third on the team in rushing with 245 yards.
Synopsis: The most interesting storyline to this game might just be the Beaver Stadium parking situation. Penn State changed the way parking and traffic operate around the stadium for 2019, so there’s sure to be confusion early on — especially in the opener. That being said, the traffic jams shouldn’t be too bad considering the Blue-White Game will likely end up being more competitive. This contest should be an absolute snoozefest. Idaho dropped to the FCS last season and proceeded to win four games. Yes, Penn State struggled against Appalachian State in the 2018 opener and nearly lost in an upset ... but App State was a good team in the FBS. Idaho — who lost its best player, LB Kaden Elliss (16 TFLs), to the NFL draft — allowed 37.5 points per game last season. With a dozen transfers into the program this season, Idaho should be better. But it still shouldn’t compete in this one.
Game 2: vs. Buffalo (7:30 p.m. Sept. 7)
2018 record: 10-4 (MAC runner-up)
Last meeting: Penn State 27-14 (Sept. 12, 2015)
Players to watch: RBs Jaret Patterson and Kevin Marks. Patterson is coming off a successful true freshman campaign, in which he scored 14 TDs, and he’s already on the Maxwell Award Watch List. Both backs were named to Athlon’s preseason All-MAC team; Marks had 845 rushing yards (4.7 ypc) last season while Patterson had 978 yards (5.6 ypc).
Synopsis: Feel free to resume yawning. The 2018 Bulls were a fun one to watch, and head coach Lance Leipold is building something in upstate New York. But the fact is this is a definite rebuilding season. QB Tyree Jackson is now with the Buffalo Bills, and his best targets have all moved on from the program. All-MAC wideout KJ Osborn transferred to Miami (Fla.), All-MAC tight end Tyler Mabry transferred to Maryland, and slot receiver Charlie Jones transferred to Iowa. Oh, and the defense has more departures than returning starters. There’s young talent here, and 2020 could see Leipold’s team again make historic strides. But in 2019, especially early in the season? This one shouldn’t be close.
Game 3: vs. Pitt (noon Sept. 14)
2018 record: 7-7 (ACC runner-up)
Last meeting: Penn State 51-6 (Sept. 8, 2018)
Player to watch: WR Maurice Ffrench. Say hello to the Pitt version of KJ Hamler. Ffrench is an electric playmaker who can do damage a lot of different ways; he had 10 TDs last season by way of receiving, rushing and returning. He also had 1,224 all-purpose yards.
Synopsis: This will be the final time the two in-state rivals ... err ... non-rivals ... face each other for quite some time. Penn State doesn’t want to play games at Heinz because it prefers as many home games as it can get and, well, it could use the money considering all the future renovations it wants at Beaver Stadium. (Beats renaming the Beav to Dietz & Watson Stadium.) The advantage this season clearly goes to Penn State. Pitt is replacing 12 starters, among them two 1,000-yard runners and four offensive linemen. Panthers QB Kenny Pickett will need to step up in a big way to keep this competitive. The main variable in this game is simply Pitt’s mindset; Pat Narduzzi likes to emphasize the importance of this meeting while James Franklin treats it like any other game. This contest is more important for Pitt, and motivation can do crazy things in college football.
Game 4: at Maryland (8 p.m. Sept. 27)
2018 record: 5-7
Last meeting: Penn State 38-3 (Nov. 24, 2018)
Player to watch: RB Anthony McFarland. As a freshman last year, he averaged 7.9 yards per carry on 131 touches. Against Ohio State, he especially impressed with 21 carries for 298 yards and two scores. It’s hard to defend speed so, naturally, McFarland — who’s reportedly been clocked in the 4.3s — is hard to defend.
Synopsis: The defense is in trouble, but the offense should be able to hold its own. Virginia Tech transfer Josh Jackson is projected by most to earn the starting QB job, and this rushing attack was elite at times last season. RB Anthony McFarland had back-to-back 200-yard games, against Indiana and Ohio State, and the Terps pushed the Buckeyes into overtime last year. WR Jeshaun Jones’ season-ending torn ACL isn’t good news, but there are still a lot of potential playmakers on offense. Defensively? Not so much. Maryland returns about a quarter of its starters from a unit that gave up nearly 400 yards a game in 2018. Jon Hoke has a lot of work to do as defensive coordinator.
Game 5: vs. Purdue (noon Oct. 5)
2018 record: 6-7
Last meeting: Penn State 62-24 (Oct. 29, 2016)
Player to watch: WR Rondale Moore. He could be the next Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. He was a consensus All-American as a true freshman last season with 2,215 all-purpose yards, and he’s the conference’s best receiver.
Synopsis: Sure, QB David Blough is gone, the top-two RBs have graduated, and the offensive line has several question marks. But head coach Jeff Brohm is a miracle worker, and QB Elijah Sindelar can pick up right where Blough left off. Sindelar has the prototypical 6-foot-4 size and a rocket arm, and he’ll have some talented targets to throw to — such as Rondale Moore, who had 114 catches last season for 1,258 yards and 12 TDs. Purdue posted the nation’s 11th-best passing offense last season and, as long as Sindelar stays healthy, it’s not expected to regress much. The big problems are on defense. The Boilermakers had the nation’s third-worst pass defense last season and, although a lot of starters return in 2019, the talent level isn’t great. Still, this team kicked Ohio State around last season to the tune of a 49-20 win — and, out of the five early games on Penn State’s schedule, this might be the toughest.
Game 6: at Iowa (Time TBD Oct. 12)
2018 record: 9-4
Last meeting: Penn State 30-24 (Oct. 27, 2018)
Player to watch: DE AJ Epenesa. Don’t pencil in Yetur Gross-Matos for Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year quite yet. Plenty of analysts think Epenesa is the conference’s most talented DE. WalterFootball projects the end to go No. 7 overall in the 2020 NFL draft — and it’s not hard to see why. Like Gross-Matos, Epenesa is known for his non-stop motor. He’s also powerful enough to wear down offensive linemen, as evidenced by last season’s 16.5 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks.
Synopsis: Fourteen of 34 Big Ten writers believe Iowa will win the Big Ten West — although all 14 believe the Hawkeyes will then lose in the Big Ten title game. Still, there are a lot of question marks that make an improvement over 2018 far from a sure thing. Kirk Ferentz’s top-two offensive threats, tight ends TJ Hockenson and Noah Fant, were both drafted in the first round. (Those two combined to have more than half of QB Nate Stanley’s 52 career TDs.) Top wideout Nick Easley is gone, and last season’s running game ranked No. 94 nationally while averaging less than 4 yards a carry. Defensively, this squad should struggle in bettering last season’s No. 7 ranking in total defense. The corners are still solid and the ends are fantastic, but both the linebackers and safeties are unproven.
Game 7: vs. Michigan (Time TBD Oct. 19)
2018 record: 10-3
Last meeting: Michigan 42-7 (Nov. 3, 2018)
Player to watch: QB Shea Patterson. The passing game should really be what makes this offense go, so Patterson’s performance will be paramount. Honorable mentions go out to OT Jon Runyan and OG Ben Bredeson.
Synopsis: Michigan has had four straight top-five defenses so, despite the departures of talents such as Chase Winovich and Rashan Gary, there’s no sense in doubting defensive coordinator Don Brown now. Sure, there should be a drop-off there — but the last time this unit ranked outside of the top 10 in total defense was the 2013 season when Brady Hoke was head coach. Offensively, there’s a lot to be excited about, which likely explains why the Wolverines are the odds-on favorite to win the conference. This should be one of the best offensive lines the nation, QB Shea Patterson is back as the starter, and the WR combination of Donovan Peoples-Jones and Nico Collins should frustrate opposing secondaries. In short, there’s a lot for new OC Josh Gattis to work with. Granted, there’s no telling who will start at running back but, with everything else working, how much of an Achilles’ heel can that be? James Franklin might regret not promoting Gattis sooner.
Game 8: at Michigan State (Time TBD Oct. 26)
2018 record: 7-6
Last meeting: Michigan State 21-17
Player to watch: DE Kenny Willekes. The 2018 All-American finished second in the school record books with 20.5 tackles for loss last season. According to Pro Football Focus, he was also the best edge-rusher in the conference with an overall grade of 90.3. Not bad for a former walk-on.
Synopsis: Elite defense, pathetic offense — that was the team identity last season and, while the offense should be better this season, it’s again going to be the defense that drives this team. With eight returning defensive starters and the nation’s top overall rush defense from a year ago, expectations are sky-high for this unit. Offense is another story. QB Brian Lewerke took a giant step backward last season, and the run game sputtered. Michigan State scored three TDs or fewer in eight games last season, and it failed to reach double digits in four. The receivers are solid and, if Lewerke can reverse last season’s regression, this team could challenge in the Big Ten East. Big Ten reporters barely projected Sparty to finish ahead of PSU.
Game 9: at Minnesota (Time TBD Nov. 9)
2018 record: 7-6
Last meeting: Penn State 29-26 (Oct. 1, 2016)
Player to watch: OT Daniel Faalele. No, he’s not the best offensive tackle in the Big Ten. And he’s not even the best player on the Minnesota offense. But there are two big reasons to watch the sophomore: He’s 6-foot-9, and he’s 400 pounds. That makes him the biggest player in college football. He’s still raw — he played football just his senior season in high school — but he was an honorable mention on the All-Big Ten team last season. In the words of head coach PJ Fleck, “It’s like the bearded lady. It’s like, wow, you’re going to pay to see her.”
Synopsis: There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about an improvement over last season. The Gophers’ two explosive backs, Rodney Thomas and Shannon Brooks, are both back after playing a combined three games last year before ACL injuries hit. (RB Mohamed Ibrahim might have actually earned the No. 2 spot over Brooks this season after averaging 5.7 ypc in 2018 as a replacement.) The receivers are great by Minnesota standards, as the Gophers return All-Big Ten wideout Tyler Johnson. And the defense can’t possibly be any worse than it was under fired DC Robb Smith, whose unit surrendered nearly 650 yards against Illinois. This is the Big Ten West’s darkhorse and, if it can figure out the situation at QB, it should be in good shape. (Sophomore Zack Annexstad won the job last year before he went down late in the season, and he was injured again Friday and remains out “indefinitely.”)
Game 10: vs. Indiana (Time TBD Nov. 16)
2018 record: 5-7
Last meeting: Penn State 33-28 (Oct. 20, 2018)
Player to watch: RB Stevie Scott. The 6-foot-2, 233-pound sophomore was better as the season wore on last year. He surpassed 100 yards in four of his last five games while racking up six touchdowns in that same span. He finished with 1,137 rushing yards and a solid 5.0 ypc. BTN named him one of the conference’s top-30 returning players.
Synopsis: This is widely regarded as a bubble-bowl team that will win five or six games but, as a whole, the program is definitely on better footing with head coach Tom Allen than it was before. It hired new offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer (complete with a $300,000 raise) and it currently has its highest-ranked recruiting class (top 30) since 247 Sports started. The defense was below average last season (No. 83 in total defense), but it returns nine starters. The big question on offense is quarterback. QB Peyton Ramsey had a solid statistical season in 2018 — the again, so did the New York Giants’ Eli Manning — but he lacked explosiveness, and he could lose his job this year to Michael Penix or Jack Tuttle.
Game 11: at Ohio State (Time TBD Nov. 23)
2018 record: 13-1 (Big Ten champion)
Last meeting: Ohio State 27-26 (Sept. 29, 2018)
Player to watch: QB Justin Fields. The Buckeyes should go as Fields does. When he came in, Tate Martell transferred to Miami (Fla.) and Matthew Baldwin left for TCU — so there’s a big drop-off between Fields and the backup. If Fields struggles or gets hurt, the Buckeyes are in trouble. If the dual-threat brings back visions of Braxton Miller? Uh-oh, Big Ten.
Synopsis: Let the Ryan Day era begin. As always, Ohio State lost a lot of talent to the NFL this past offseason — but there’s plenty of talent waiting in the wings. Gone is RB Mike Weber, but returning is the speedy J.K. Dobbins. Gone is record-breaking QB Dwayne Haskins, but in his place is transfer Justin Fields, arguably the top overall prospect in the 2018 class. Gone are three of the top-four pass-catchers, but returning is K.J. Hill who’ll almost certainly be playing on future Sundays. Defensively, Dre’Mont Jones and Nick Bosa are gone — but DE Chase Young returns as one of the Big Ten’s best. For every question, there’s an exclamation mark. This season, the defense should be better. But the offense? The line has to replace three starters and, again, replacing Haskins is no small task. This unit will undoubtedly look different in 2019, and it’s difficult to gauge just how much of a drop-off there’ll be. But no one’s expecting the Buckeyes to slip past second in the Big Ten East.
Game 12: vs. Rutgers (Time TBD Nov. 30)
2018 record: 1-11
Last meeting: Penn State 20-7 (Nov. 17, 2018)
Player to watch: RB Raheem Blackshear. The junior was an honorable mention on the All-Big Ten team last season, and he’s a team captain this year. He’s balanced — 586 rushing yards, 367 receiving yards in 2018 — and is one of the few weapons of this offense. He’s averaging a respectable 4.5 ypc for his career.
Synopsis: What can you say about a team that’s most often compared to a dumpster fire? Rutgers had the nation’s worst scoring offense last season (13.5 ppg), a quarterback who led the nation in interceptions (18), a unit that turned the ball over 29 times (second-worst rate in the nation) and a red-zone offense with the nation’s third-worst rate (74.1 percent). The defense wasn’t good last season but, statistically, it wasn’t the nation’s worst. Which is something. The bad news? Six of those defensive starters have departed. Rutgers has quickly become the Big Ten’s punching bag; don’t look for that to change in 2019.