Penn State guns for repeat in the Big Ten

April, 24, 2009
4/24/09
11:00
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Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- When searching Penn State's roster for an authority on the program's rich history, center Stefen Wisniewski is a pretty good place to start.

 
  Rich Kane/US PRESSWIRE
  Stefen Wisniewski leads an offensive line that loses three of its five starters from last season.

His dad, Leo, starred on Penn State's defensive line from 1979 to 1981 and helped the Lions to two Fiesta Bowl victories. His uncle Steve was a two-time first-team All-American on Penn State's offensive line and played for the national championship squad in 1986 before becoming an eight-time Pro Bowler for the Raiders.

The next man to carry the proud Wisniewski name at Penn State has a good handle on the program's past, present and future. After starting at guard on a Lions team that shared the Big Ten title last fall, Stefen recognizes the significance of a repeat league championship.

"It would mean that we're not just a once-in-a-while good team," he said.

And that's exactly what Penn State has been since joining the Big Ten in 1993.

The Lions have been Big Ten champions three times in 16 years. They won the outright title in 1994, en route to a 12-0 season and a Rose Bowl victory, and shared the crown both in 2005 and last season.

Penn State is tied with both Wisconsin and Northwestern for Big Ten championships during the span, and trails only Ohio State (8) and Michigan (5). But the Lions have yet to secure back-to-back league titles and haven't posted consecutive 10-win seasons since their first two years in the league (1993-94).

Pegged to be the Big Ten's third powerhouse program when it joined the league, Penn State is still trying to reserve a spot at the head table alongside Ohio State and Michigan.

The wait could be over this fall.

Despite losing a good chunk of last year's team, these Lions are still hungry, and several factors point to another Big Ten feast in 2009.

"It's always hard to repeat anything," junior linebacker Navorro Bowman said. "Our goal is to be the best, and our ultimate goal is to win a national championship, but our focus is the Big Ten. Once the Big Ten starts and we get it going, there's no telling what's going to happen.

"We still have guys here who understand what it takes to win, and we plan on doing it."

Many will point to Penn State's personnel departures: 14 starters, 20 letter winners, a first-team All-American in defensive end Aaron Maybin, a second-team All-American in center A.Q. Shipley, two third-team All-Americans in wideout/return man Derrick Williams and guard Rich Ohrnberger.

The Lions lose three starting wide receivers, their entire starting secondary and three defensive ends, including two early departures (Maybin and Maurice Evans). Three-fifths of the starting offensive line is also gone.

But consider who the Lions bring back for 2009:

  • A first-team All-Big Ten quarterback in senior Daryll Clark
  • The league's top returning rusher in junior running back Evan Royster
  • One of the nation's most dominant defensive tackles in Jared Odrick
  • A first-team All-Big Ten linebacker in Bowman, who ranked fifth in the league in tackles for loss last fall (16.5) despite not starting the first three games
  • Bednarik Award candidate Sean Lee, who returns from a torn ACL to anchor Penn State's defensive midsection and complement Clark's leadership

"You're losing guys every year, and we lost a good number of them," Wisniewski said. "But this year, as opposed to other years, the young guys we have there, they're going to be ready quicker, and we'll be able to stay at a high level like we were last year."

There likely will be growing pains at several positions, but Penn State has the schedule to withstand them. Unlike last fall, when the Lions visited both Ohio State and Wisconsin for prime-time kickoffs and made a fateful trip to Iowa City in early November, the slate looks extremely manageable.

Penn State will be justifiably ripped for its flimsy nonconference schedule -- home games against Akron, Syracuse, Temple and Eastern Illinois -- but the cupcake convention could allow the Lions to build confidence in areas like the secondary and the offensive line. The Lions also host their two primary competitors for the Big Ten title, as Iowa visits Beaver Stadium for the league opener Sept. 26 and Ohio State arrives Nov. 7.

The Buckeyes, who have won at least a share of the Big Ten title in the last four seasons, haven't lost a Big Ten road game since visiting Penn State in 2005. And while Ohio State is the gold standard in the Big Ten during this decade, it has split its last four meetings with the Lions.

"Looking at the schedule," Odrick said, "it's set up pretty nice for us."

Penn State has prevailed in its last eight home games and 16 of its last 17, winning by an average of 28.4 points.

"I can't imagine what it'd be like to play at Beaver Stadium and be an opponent," safety Drew Astorino said. "That's a huge factor in playing those good teams. We're real excited about that."

Head coach Joe Paterno doesn't sound too excited about his team's 2009 prospects at this point, expressing major concern about the secondary and the offensive line. Paterno admitted last week that it hasn't been a good spring for the Lions, citing injuries and other setbacks.

But when asked about the difficulty of stringing together two special seasons, the lead Lion doesn't flinch.

"We've done it before," he said. "Let's see if we can do it again."

 
  Randy Litzinger/Icon SMI
  Jared Odrick likes the look of the 2009 schedule for the Nittany Lions.

Penn State has posted consecutive 10-win seasons six times in Paterno's 43-year tenure, including back-to-back 11-0 marks in 1968 and 1969, a four-year run of double-digit wins between 1971 and 1974 and consecutive spotless regular seasons in 1985 and 1986. But in the Big Ten, sustained success has been harder to come by.

Of Paterno's five losing seasons, four have come in Big Ten play, including a brutal stretch between 2000 and 2004 when Penn State posted only one winning record (9-4 in 2002). The hard times are over, as Penn State has won two Big Ten titles and averaged 10 wins in the last four years.

"When we came to this program, we were on the downturn, hadn't won in a while," Lee said. "In the last few years, we've had a ton of great leaders that
have turned this program around and won games. To end on a high note, winning a bunch of games, going to a great bowl, hopefully going to a national championship, that would be a dream come true for me."

Despite Penn State's rebirth since 2005, the program is still looking for more national respect.

The Lions' loss to Iowa on Nov. 8 seemed to set off celebrations everywhere outside the Big Ten footprint, as Penn State fell out of the national championship race and the title game wouldn't feature another Big Ten beat-down. A Rose Bowl loss to USC didn't help matters, and Penn State took some heat despite a mostly dominant regular season.

"We make it to the Rose Bowl last year, and people want to say, 'Oh, but you got beat by USC,'" Odrick said. "Then there's the same amount of people who say we wouldn't be [Big Ten] co-champions with Ohio State. We won it outright, pretty much, just by beating them, and they got beat by USC by how much?

"People always want to point the finger at us, but if we win the second one in a row, we'll really smack some people in the face."

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