- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Your favorite teacher is back with more grades for each Big Ten team. We're judging each squad on its offense, defense, special teams and overall performance in the 2012 regular season.
Up now: the Penn State Nittany Lions.
Welcome to the 21st century, Lions fans. The arrival of Bill O'Brien brought a welcome leap forward for the Penn State attack with his pro-style philosophy. All O'Brien did was turn Matt McGloin into the top passing quarterback in the Big Ten (3,271 passing yards, 24 touchdowns) and make previously unheralded sophomore Allen Robinson the league's best wideout (77 catches, 1,081 yards, 11 scores). Not surprisingly, given O'Brien's history, the tight ends also became a fearsome group, led by future superstar Kyle Carter. You could knock the Nittany Lions' offense early in the season for a lack of a strong running game, but Zach Zwinak turned it on late and had at least 134 rushing yards in each of the final four games. Penn State averaged nearly 32 points per game in its final 10 contests. Given that two of the team's top returning players in Silas Redd and Justin Brown took advantage of an NCAA transfer waiver just before the season, what the Nittany Lions managed to do on offense was pretty remarkable.
This was a very good defense with some outstanding players. Linebacker Michael Mauti was our choice for Big Ten defensive player of the year, while position mate Gerald Hodges was just as good in Big Ten play. Defensive tackle Jordan Hill was among the best in the business at his spot and played courageously at the end of the season. Defensive end Deion Barnes easily won conference freshman of the year honors. Despite replacing four starters in the secondary, Penn State kept that from becoming a liability. The Lions' defense didn't often shut people down -- every Big Ten team except woeful Illinois and Purdue scored at least 21 points against it. But Ted Roof's bunch allowed an average of only 19 points per game and could usually be counted on to do its job each week.
Special teams: D
The kicking game might be the area that is hardest hit by the NCAA-mandated scholarship reductions. You know that Sam Ficken's problems cost Penn State the Virginia game, while the Ohio loss was marred by a special teams blunder and the Ohio State game turned in part on a botched fake punt. Ficken improved throughout the season and was the hero in the finale against Wisconsin in overtime. But Penn State was pretty bad in kickoff returns (111th nationally), punting (105th), punt returns (89th) and kickoff coverage (88th). O'Brien will have to figure out how to improve those units with limited roster numbers.
We naturally must deduct some points for the 0-2 start. But after that, Penn State went 8-2, with the only losses to Ohio State -- whom nobody beat all year -- and on the road at Nebraska. This team was definitely a Top 25 caliber club at the end of the season and would have been hard to handle had it been eligible to play in a bowl. That's why O'Brien was named Big Ten coach of the year and won some national awards for his work. Given the personnel losses and all the distractions surrounding the program, it would be hard to ask for much more than what this team accomplished
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15hBrian Bennett and Josh Moyer
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