Following a 2014 in which Buffalo was outscored 110-33 in their two non-conference games against Power Five opponents (Ohio State and Baylor), the Bulls will head to University Park to take on Penn State. The Nittany Lions are coming off a 7-6 finish, and the road to more success runs right into the Bulls.
Penn State won their first four games, which included three non-conference teams, and was playing well. Then, conference play picked up. PSU dropped their first four games to conference foes, and went 1-6 in their remaining B1G games. The Nittany Lions return a solid defense, but some offensive components must improve for 2015 to be better.
At quarterback, junior Christian Hackenberg returns for this third year as the starting play-caller. His completion percentage, touchdown, interception, and sack numbers were all worse last year compared to his true freshman season. He passed for just 12 touchdowns to 15 interceptions and was sacked a frustrating 44 times. Hackenberg is one of just eight QBs to amass 5,000 passing yards, and he is just halfway done with his college career. The 2,000+ passing yards will be there again this year, but Penn State's ability to win games will depend on how the offensive line returns. Hackenberg's protectors were young last year, but the fact that they are returning should be a good thing.
Senior center Angelo Mangiro leads the O-line into 2015. His supporting cast will consist of junior guard Brian Gaia and sophomore tackle Andrew Nelson. Showing promise will be sophomore Brendan Mahone. The 6-foot-4, 316 pound guard was a 4-star sign out of high school. While he certainly shows promise, he was forced into nine starts last season as a true freshman when injuries took down one of the returning starters. JUCO transfer Paris Palmer, holding junior eligibility, looks to jump in the rotation as well.
The running back corps is another division of the Penn State offense that struggled because of the offensive line's inexperience and health issues. Akeel Lynch comes back to take control of the ball carriers. His 2014 campaign saw 678 yards on 147 carries yielding 4 touchdowns. The wide receiver group contains a number of playmakers as well, highlighted by sophomore DaeSean Hamilton. As a freshman last year, he racked up 899 yards and 2 touchdowns. Another favorite of Hackenberg's is junior Geno Lewis, who hauled in 751 yards and 2 TDs. Even more depth is added by sophomores Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall. With last year's tight end gone, senior Kyle Carter figures to jump into a more involved role.
Penn State's bright spot in 2014 was by far the defense, which ranked 2nd in the country in average yards per game with 278.7. Even more exciting for Nittany Lion fans is the defense returns four of six defensive linemen, three of four linebackers, and three of four defensive backs. Senior DT Anthony Zettel leads the charge, who totaled 8.0 sacks by himself. Also coming back at defensive tackle is junior Austin Johnson. Zettel and Johnson combined for 69 total tackles last season, and will be looking for even more. These two are assisted by defensive ends Garrett Sickels, Carl Nassib, and Evan Schwan -- all of which have at least a season's worth of starts under their belts.
At linebacker, juniors Nyeem Wartman-White and Brandon Bell return. While these two combined for over 88 tackles last season, their numbers still don't come close to Mike Hull's ridiculous 107.5 takedowns. Hull graduated this past year but Wartman-White and Bell, assisted by a number of other upperclassmen, come back improved and ready to go.
Senior Jordan Lucas and sophomore Marcus Allen return at safety, and senior Trevor Williams returns at cornerback. Grant Haley will have an increased responsibility at cornerback since Lucas was moved to safety. The secondary ranked second in the country in pass defense efficiency, and ninth in fewest passing yards allowed. With so many starters coming back from such a great passing defense, expect the Nittany Lions to be extremely tough to crack for Buffalo. The Bull's chance, however, will come from their defense giving Penn State's offensive line trouble, just as many teams did last year.
A team with such a stifling defense should not be fighting for a .500 record, but they will when the offensive line is in so inconsistent. Penn State ranked 119th in sacks per game. Every MAC team ranked ahead of them. The key for Penn State in this faceoff with Buffalo, and every game this season, will be giving Hackenberg the time to be as dangerous as he can be. Even with such little help up front, Hackenberg can still throw all over the place. If they can figure it out up front, this team can be lethal.
Catch the game on September 12th at noon and can be seen on ESPN2/ESPNU.