Lions look longingly at Rose Bowl

Enough waiting: Second year in Big Ten promises to be best chance yet for Penn State

Penn State found out just how tough the Big Ten is last year when it finished 10-2 in its inaugural season in the conference.

The Nittany Lions ranked No. 8 in the AP poll at season's end, just two spots behind Rose Bowl-champion Wisconsin and three spots ahead of league co-champion Ohio State.

Despite equaling both teams in wins at six, the Lions were sent to the Citrus Bowl as the Big Ten's runner-up and proceeded to trounce Tennessee 31-13.

Having gained one year of Big Ten experience, Penn State is looking to achieve one goal--a Rose Bowl berth.

But head coach Joe Paterno knows that claiming the conference crown will be even more difficult this time around.

"It's real good to have one year under our belt," Paterno said. "The Big Ten is a very tough conference. And it will be even tougher this year."

Paterno, now in his 29th year at Penn State, cited three key concerns for the upcoming season: the schedule, his punting game and his defense.

The one thing Paterno is certain about is his offense. Senior quarterback Kerry Collins will lead a scoring machine, featuring standout tailbacks Ki-Jana Carter, Mike Archie and Stephen Pitts.

In addition, Collins will have an arsenal of receivers, highlighted by Bobby Engram.

"I think we have a chance to be a good offensive football team," Paterno said. "There are a lot of people coming back and a lot of them had some success."

Seven offensive starters return, including three on a veteran offensive line of four seniors and a graduate student.

"They have been very consistent," Collins said. "Those guys are well coached and technically sound. We asked them to do a lot of things, and they really stepped up to the challenge. Hopefully, they'll do the same this year."

In the backfield, Carter led all Penn State rushers last season with 1,026 yards in 155 attempts and seven touchdowns, despite missing most of the last three games.

Archie was impressive as well with 766 yards on 132 attempts for an average of 5.8 a carry.

"Our running game is probably our strongest point," Collins said. "I think once we establish that, we'd like to keep things off balance with the passing game."

Engram razzled and dazzled his way to 873 yards on 48 receptions for an 8.2 average. Engram's 13 touchdowns are a school record and tied him for third-highest in Big Ten history.

"We go into this year a lot better off than we were last year in the passing game," Paterno said. "I think we have some people that can help give us a more balanced passing game."

Collins will need to balance himself in order for the passing game to succeed. Last year Collins went through many ups and downs, leading to inconsistent numbers of 1,605 yards and a 51 percent completion percentage.

"The thing that is going to help personally is the fact that I have gone through a year of starting, I understand what's going on and I have a lot more confidence," Collins said.

"What I am going to try and do this year is to just be more consistent. Game in and game out, go out there and give a solid performance."

But don't be surprised if Wally Richardson challenges Collins for playing time. The sophomore has three years of eligibility left, and Paterno wants him to get some action.

"(Collins) will get a lot of pressure from Richardson," Paterno said. "That is a good situation. We want Wally to get as much experience as he can because he is capable. Right now, though, I'd have to say Kerry is our quarterback."

Of Paterno's concerns, defense is the biggest. Losing eight starters, including top defensive tackles Lou Benfatti and Tyoka Jackson, plus three defensive backs, forces Paterno to bring in inexperienced players to fill the holes.

"I'm a little worried about replacing Lou, Tyoka and (linebacker) Eric Ravotti," Paterno said. "Even if we can replace them, or get some people to do an adequate job, we might not have any backup people."

But the Lions still remain stacked at the linebacker position. Brian Gelzheiser leads a veteran group that needs to pick up the slack for a decimated defense.

Another of Paterno's conerns comes in special teams, where starting punter V.J. Muscillo and kicker Craig Fayak are no longer present.

Brett Conway, who handled kickoffs last year, is the top candidate to replace Fayak. But finding a punter will be a bit more of a problem. Redshirt freshman Joe Jurevicius is among several possibilites to fill the void.

Paterno also wasn't too thrilled with his schedule, having to play Michigan and Ohio State--the two teams he lost to last year--back-to-back.

Penn State's defense will be tested by every opposing offense in the Big Ten. The Lions will live and die by its offense. If they can do this, look for Penn State's offense to carry the team into contention for a conference title.