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Thursday, September 3, 2009
Best case-worst case: Penn State

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com


Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


The ninth installment in a series examining the best and worst outcomes, within reason, for each Big Ten squad.

BEST CASE



Penn State proves it can reload, receives repeat performances from its stars, stays healthy and runs the table.

The dominance Penn State showed for most of last season returns, as the Nittany Lions handle their business against inferior opponents. Quarterback Daryll Clark and Evan Royster do their thing against Akron, but Derek Moye emerges as a playmaker at wide receiver and a new-look offensive line gains confidence. Defensive end Jack Crawford backs up the hype in Week 2, sacking Greg Paulus three times.

After another cakewalk against Temple, the Lions welcome Iowa into the "Whiteout" at Beaver Stadium. Linebackers Sean Lee and Navorro Bowman stuff the Hawkeyes' rushing attack, and after a slow start on offense, Clark picks apart Iowa's secondary down the stretch. The game is tight for a half, but Penn State turns the tide by blocking a Daniel Murray field-goal attempt early in the third quarter and goes on for a 27-17 victory. Penn State fans flood the blog to gloat.

Penn State faces arguably its biggest matchup problem of the season with Illinois' dynamic passing attack, but the secondary holds up as Drew Astorino intercepts Juice Williams twice in a 30-21 victory. The Lions move to 7-0 and vault into the top 5, and they take out years of frustration at the Big House by throttling Michigan 35-10 on Oct. 24.

Penn State survives a trap game at Northwestern as Royster scores two fourth-quarter touchdowns, setting up the showdown with undefeated No. 3 Ohio State. With a chance to finally gain some national respect, the Lions edge the Buckeyes in a defensive struggle, as Lee picks off Terrelle Pryor late in the fourth quarter to seal the win. Two more wins follow, and Penn State clinches its second straight Big Ten title and establishes itself as the league's third powerhouse.

In danger of getting snubbed from the national title game, Penn State watches as Florida stumbles in the SEC title game. As the only undefeated BCS team, Penn State heads back to Pasadena and faces Florida. Sorry, Nits fans, can't see Penn State beating the Gators, but it's a respectable showing.

Royster stays for his senior season. So does Bowman. Paterno says he'll coach forever but, just in case, sets up a succession plan for Tom Bradley. Penn State brings in the Big Ten's top recruiting class.


WORST CASE


Penn State can't fill the gaps, loses the one player it can't afford to lose and fails to capitalize on a cushy schedule.

The Lions start off 3-0 but do so in less-than impressive fashion, as the wide receivers drop passes, the offensive line struggles in protection and the secondary gets exposed by Akron's Chris Jacquemain and Paulus. Then disaster strikes in the Iowa game, as Clark sustains a season-ending injury on a blindside hit. Penn State's offense sputters with a freshman (Kevin Newsome) at the helm, and Iowa escapes Happy Valley with a 17-6 victory.

Illinois punishes the Penn State secondary the next week, as Williams channels his inner Mark Sanchez and tosses five touchdown passes. Unimpressive wins against Eastern Illinois and Minnesota follow, and the Big House once again becomes a House of Horrors for Penn State, which commits three second-half turnovers in a loss to Michigan. The Lions drop two of their final four games, falling to Ohio State as Pryor returns to his home state and sets a total offense record in Beaver Stadium.

At 7-5, Penn State heads to the Champs Sports Bowl with little fanfare. Royster and Bowman leave early for the NFL. Paterno retires and Penn State bungles the succession process. Ohio State leapfrogs the Lions for the Big Ten's top recruiting class.