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Wednesday, October 21, 2009
Second-half outlook: Penn State

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Penn State Nittany Lions

Record: 6-1

Remaining schedule: at Michigan, at Northwestern, vs. Ohio State, vs. Indiana, at Michigan State

One way or another, we're going to learn a lot about Penn State in these final five games, all of which come against teams with winning records. The Nittany Lions boast a gradually improving offense and a lockdown defense that hasn't allowed a first-half touchdown and ranks second nationally in points allowed (8.7 ppg). Still, as head coach Joe Paterno accurately put it this week, "We've been fortunate. The only tough game we've been in we've lost [to Iowa]." Though Penn State hasn't faced an offense ranked in the top 70 nationally, the Lions' defense has the potential to maintain its dominating play. Sean Lee is getting healthier, and he'll form an explosive linebacking corps with Navorro Bowman and Josh Hull when he starts playing normal reps. The defensive line also is gaining steam behind tackles Jared Odrick and Ollie Ogbu and end Jack Crawford. I'm not sold on the secondary, so we'll see how that group progresses. On offense, the line seems to be jelling after a slow start. Evan Royster remains the Big Ten's most complete back, and he could have a monster second half. Quarterback Daryll Clark has been good aside from the Iowa loss and needs to continue using his weapons at wide receiver and tight end.

Best-case scenario: The defense doesn't budge an inch against tougher competition and produces five or six All-Big Ten standouts. Royster turns it on and Penn State's offensive line gains more confidence. The Lions sweep their final five games and Iowa stumbles twice, giving Penn State a return trip to the Rose Bowl.

Worst-case scenario: Better opponents expose the flaws Penn State has masked because of its easy schedule. The Lions look like a different team away from Happy Valley and drop games to Michigan, Michigan State and possibly Northwestern. Penn State wins only one to two games the rest of the way and has to settle for the Alamo Bowl or the Champs Sports Bowl.

Prediction: Fiesta Bowl. Penn State loses a game but still heads back to a BCS bowl.