One of the best offenses in school history made Penn State a national title contender last season. The losses of three of the school’s all-time leading receivers may make repeating that success a challenging task.
With Daryll Clark under center, though, coach Joe Paterno’s club might have a shot.
The All-Big Ten quarterback will have a new receiving corps around him and a revamped offensive line in front of him when the ninth-ranked Nittany Lions kick off their season Saturday against visiting Akron.
Penn State (11-2) began 2008 ranked low in the Top 25 largely because of its lack of a proven QB, but Clark’s inexperience proved to not be a burden.
After completing 20 passes in two seasons as a backup, Clark was the Big Ten’s best quarterback in 2008. He threw for 2,592 yards, 19 touchdowns and six interceptions as the conference’s top-rated passer, carrying the Nittany Lions to their second Big Ten title in the past four years before they fell 38-24 to Southern California in the Rose Bowl.
That team, however, featured seniors Deon Butler, Derrick Williams and Jordan Norwood, the receiving trio that had 1,900 yards and 17 touchdowns last season. The players ranked first, third and fourth, respectively, on the school’s all-time receptions list.
Also gone is the left side of Penn State’s offensive line, a punishing unit that paved the way for the nation’s 17th-best rushing attack at 205.8 yards per game.
Those losses haven’t dampened Clark’s enthusiasm.
“I’m very confident in what we have,” Clark said. “We have a lot of question marks about us being inexperienced, but the only way you play out of inexperience is actually practicing and going through all the games.”
The lack of a proven backup behind Clark - Pat Devlin transferred after last season - hasn’t been enough to sour Paterno on letting his starter run on occasion, either. Clark rushed for 386 yards last year.
“We can’t say, ‘We’re only going to do this with Clark,’ if we don’t have certain people that can do what we think they should do with him to protect him. We’re out to win games,” said Paterno, entering his 44th season as Penn State’s coach.
It was Paterno who spent much of last season struggling to move around, but the coach had surgery in November to repair a bad hip that kept him in the press box for much of 2008.
Paterno expects to be on the sidelines Saturday, where he’ll see Brett Brackett, Derek Moye and Graham Zug - who combined for 27 catches last season - as Clark’s main targets, along with senior tight ends Mickey Shuler and Andrew Quarless.
Clark will have a speedy backfield that includes Evan Royster, whose 6.5-yard average was among the top 20 in the country, and Stephfon Green, whose 124 yards from scrimmage was a rare bright spot in the Rose Bowl loss.
Even if Penn State can’t score at last season’s 38.9 points-per-game pace, it should feel confident in a defense that yielded 14.4 points a contest - eighth in the nation.
Tackles Jared Odrick and Ollie Ogbu return up front, and the Nittany Lions’ linebackers should again be among college football’s best. Navorro Bowman was All-Big Ten at outside linebacker in 2008, and he will be joined by senior Sean Lee, who was sidelined last season due to a torn ACL.
Sophomore Michael Mauti suffered the same injury during preseason practice, meaning senior Josh Hull will start in his place in the middle.
Akron (5-7) returns 15 starters including Chris Jacquemain, who threw for 2,748 yards, 20 touchdowns and 14 interceptions last season. The senior should benefit from eight other returnees on offense, including receivers Deryn Bowser and Andre Jones.
Coach J.D. Brookhart’s team was 5-4 with three games to play last year and looked to be headed toward its first bowl game since 2005.
Akron, though, went on to lose its final three games, one of them a four-overtime defeat to Buffalo. That hasn’t dampened Brookhart’s outlook for this season, however.
“I feel very good about this football team,” he said. “I think that the chemistry piece is good, the character is very good and we’ve got some experience so I feel good about the team.”
Penn State leads the series with Akron 3-0, winning the most recent matchup 34-16 in 2006. The Nittany Lions are 39-1 against Mid-American Conference opponents under Paterno.