After a brief delay, Know Thy Foe returns today so we can finish previewing the Badgers' 2012 schedule. Just like in 2011, the Badgers will end their regular season with a game against Penn State. But this year the Badgers will travel to Happy Valley for the first time since 2007, and will look for their first win in Beaver Stadium since 2003.
This will be the second year in a row that the Badgers and Nittany Lions will close out the regular season together, and it definitely seems like the Big Ten would like to cultivate a new rivalry between the now-division rivals. It'll take a little more than an annual matchup between the two teams to stoke a kindling rivalry into life, but the two teams might be well on their way after Penn State finished second in the Danny O'Brien sweepstakes to the Badgers.
Fortunately, we've brought in another excellent writer to give us a better look at the state of a Penn State program that's been in a state of flux for the past few months now. Mike Pettigano is the managing editor of BlackShoeDiaries.com, Penn State's resident blog on the SB Nation network. Mike was gracious enough to answer a few questions about the Lions, and we're certainly grateful for his help.
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Know Thy Foe: Penn State
With Bill O'Brien now at the helm, what kind of shape is his new team in for 2012? Are they an experienced team or are the Nittany Lions on the cusp of a rebuilding project?
Mike Pettigano: Depending on the position, both. Some parts of the team are very strong, while others will keep the staff up at night. We'll get into specific players and groups later, but O'Brien could have a very nice mix of new blood and old veterans on the team. With the new staff, it's essential for the team to have established leaders that can be leaned on when the going gets tough during the first few seasons. But they also want enough flexibility on the roster to bring up some young players that may not have fit the old system.
As a high-profile coordinator in the NFL, it certainly seems like O'Brien will bring an interesting element to the Big Ten in his first year. What kind of offensive style can we expect to see this year, and how big of an adjustment will it be for the team to adapt to his style?
MP: It's not so much that Penn State would have difficulty adapting to O'Brien's offensive system. Penn State has thrown the ball for years. It's relied on ball-control offense with efficient passing games, without the flash of a big play offense. The problem is that the last two seasons, Penn State has lacked a decent quarterback. The team itself is actually set up quite nicely for O'Brien's style. The receivers are quick and have good hands. Silas Redd is a feature back that could start for any team in the top-20. And even though the offensive line loses lots of experience, the raw talent is there for Mac McWhorter to create a very good front five.
Defense always seems to be one of Penn State's calling cards in the past. Will the defense see much of a transition this year, and who are the players to watch this season?
MP: Penn State's defense might have the best units on the team, but also the biggest liability in the secondary. Five of the linebackers are good enough to earn All-Big Ten recognition as starters, including All-America candidates Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti. The defensive line, traditionally the strongest and most consistent unit on the entire team, returns enough talent and experience to mitigate the loss of All-American tackle Devon Still. Plus, both of those units are coached by holdovers from the previous staff, Larry Johnson Sr. (DL) and Ron Vanderlinden (LB). The secondary does return a few players with starting experience, but is dangerously thin. It will be up to Ted Roof to come up with a system this fall that minimizes the load placed on the back four. Whether that means more pass rush or dropping linebackers into coverage, it remains to be seen.
What's the best and worst-case scenario for the Nittany Lions this year, and which is the more likely outcome? Penn State hasn't gotten a lot of hype in the preseason- is it possible that they're being overlooked this year, or will the transition hold the Lions down in 2012?
MP: I typically don't like to offer W/L predictions until closer to the season. But if Penn State can get to a bowl game, the fans will be happy. Surprisingly enough, this fan base has been very respectful of the position in which O'Brien has been placed (hint: it's not an enviable or easy one). I'd say even half the fans would not be too harsh on O'Brien if Penn State were to miss the post season. Still, seven wins is a good starting point for success or failure this year.
Finally, do you have a gut feeling about the Penn State - Wisconsin game this year? Having the game at home should certainly work in the Lions' favor, but what kind of game should we expect to see?
MP: If Danny O'Brien ignites, the game might not be close. But O'Brien isn't Russell Wilson, so I can't say how the Wisconsin QB situation will play out this fall. Right now I'm expecting the Badgers to come away with their first win in Beaver Stadium since 2003.
Thanks again to Mike for his help today. You can follow him on Twitter at @MikePettigano, and can find more of his work at BlackShoeDiaries.com.
For more Wisconsin Badgers news, notes and discussion, follow John on Twitter.