Dynamic Lions offense could eclipse '94 team

September, 5, 2008
9/05/08
10:49
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Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Here's a scary thought for Big Ten defensive coordinators.

In 1994, Penn State led the nation in both scoring (47.8 ppg) and total offense (520.2 ypg), broke three Big Ten records, 14 team records and 19 individual records. The Nittany Lions' produced five first-team All-Americans on offense, including running back Ki-Jana Carter, the No. 1 overall selection in the 1995 NFL draft. Penn State didn't lose a game that fall, beating its opponents by an average of 26 points.

But in terms of big-play threats, the type of players who can change games upon contact with the ball, the 1994 Lions team might be jealous of the current one.

"We didn't have as many [in 1994]," coach Joe Paterno said. "Carter was the first guy picked in the whole draft, Bobby Engram's still playing, [Kerry] Collins was a first-round pick, [Kyle] Brady's still playing tight end with the Patriots. We had four or five on that team that were playmakers and game-breakers, the whole bit.

"We probably have more kids on this team who have that kind of potential."

Whether Penn State makes a push for a Big Ten title in what could be Paterno's final season on the sideline remains to be seen.

The Lions lost linebacker Sean Lee, their top defender, to a knee injury this spring. The team's off-field problems continued this week with the suspensions of three players, including All-Big Ten defensive end Maurice Evans and starting defensive tackle Abe Koroma, for Saturday's critical home matchup against Oregon State (ABC, 3:30 p.m.).

But a glance at Penn State's skill-position depth makes it clear there will be plenty of dizzying highlights this fall in Happy Valley. Throw in a system -- the Spread HD -- that should better utilize the talent, and the Lions should be even more dangerous.

"There's not enough spots on the field for the amount of athletes we have," wide receiver Brett Brackett said. "To get them all to touch the ball and make plays is going to be exciting."

The 6-foot-6, 235-pound Brackett plays behind three senior wide receivers -- Derrick Williams, Deon Butler and Jordan Norwood -- who entered the season with 366 career receptions, 32 total touchdowns and 4,597 career receiving yards. Though the group has fallen short of expectations at times, the arrival of a new offensive system and a new quarterback (Daryll Clark) should help.

Williams' value goes beyond the passing game, as he showed last Saturday against Coastal Carolina, returning a kickoff 89 yards for a touchdown. The co-captain has three career touchdowns on returns to go with five rushing scores.

"There's different people that can beat you in different parts of the offense," Brackett said. "It's not just [Anthony] Morelli throwing deep or Rodney [Kinlaw] making runs. There's different guys that can make plays and different abilities."

Williams played an integral role in Penn State's Orange Bowl run in 2005, but when it comes to playmakers, the current team has more -- "by far," he said.

"Right when last year's team was over with, it was definitely a sign of how many weapons we had," Williams continued. "There's so many people on the field that are very good that can do things at any given moment."

The veteran receivers help, but Penn State's biggest strength will be in the backfield. In addition to Clark, whose scrambling ability gives the offense something it didn't have the last two seasons, the Lions boast a core of young ball carriers. There's a reason why seven running backs are listed on this week's depth chart.

Sophomore Evan Royster leads the group after finishing second on the team in rushing and averaging better than six yards a carry last season. Next up is redshirt freshman Stephfon Green, whose speed and elusiveness makes him one of the most anticipated arrivals in recent years. Sophomore Brent Carter also will contribute alongside true freshman Brandon Beachum.

The Lions averaged 7.8 yards a carry and scored seven rushing touchdowns against Coastal Carolina.

"We're in good shape," Paterno said. "But you can't play 'em all, also. Sometimes it's a luxury that we can't exploit."

Brackett and his teammates occasionally watch highlights from the 1994 season, trying to pick up lessons from the offense. But the scheme barely resembles what Penn State now runs.

In some ways, neither do the players.

"They had a lot of offensive weapons," Brackett said, "but I don't think they had the same type of athlete we have now and the amount we have, it's unbelievable. ... It'll be hard to live up to what they did on the field, but we have the ability to do that."

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