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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Penn State opens its 127th season on the gridiron Saturday (3:30 p.m. on ABC/ESPN2) against Syracuse inside MetLife Stadium.
For the first time since 2000, the Nittany Lions will open their season away from Beaver Stadium when they collide with the Orange for the 71st time. Penn State will add to its long list of games in the Meadowlands Sports Complex (14th game) when they line up for their first game inside the new home of the New York Giants, Jets and Super Bowl XLVIII.
In his second year at the helm of the Nittany Lions, head coach Bill O'Brien returns a squad with 16 starters and 37 letterwinners back from 2012. Syracuse will be under the direction of first-year head coach Scott Shafer.
Since Penn State last took the field for a game, 272 days have passed. Following countless hours in the weight room, in meetings and on the practice field, the long wait is over. The 2013 Penn State Football season is here. Welcome to the Gameday Preview for the season-opener against the Syracuse Orange.
What to Watch For - Penn State
1. Penn State enters the game with experienced players scattered across the Bill O'Brien-led offense, but a new face will be under center when the Nittany Lions take the field for their first offensive play. O'Brien indicated to the media on Tuesday afternoon that the starting quarterback would be revealed when the Lions take their first snap on offense. Whether it is sophomore Tyler Ferguson or true freshman Christian Hackenberg, neither player has ever taken a snap in a Division I college football game. Both players are expected to see time with the starter taking the majority of the snaps. Ferguson and Hackenberg have made superb progress since the start of training camp in August. Look for the young quarterbacks to utilize the four talented tight ends on the depth chart.
2. On the defensive side of the ball, the Nittany Lions want to stop the Syracuse running game. O'Brien noted on Tuesday at his weekly press conference that defending the run is imperative for the Lions to be successful in 2013. Headlining the returning talent in the heart of the Nittany Lion defense is a pair of hard-nosed, physical seniors - DaQuan Jones and Glenn Carson. Jones, who stands at 6-3, 318 pounds at defensive tackle, and Carson will be leaders for the John Butler-led Penn State defense. Keeping the Syracuse ground game in check is a big key for the Nittany Lions in the opener.
3. Complementary football is a term Coach O'Brien has used since he stepped onto the Penn State campus. Simply put, success in one phase of the game should lead to success in another phase of the game. When the Nittany Lions force a three-and-out on defense, O'Brien wants to see a scoring drive from the offense. The third piece to the complementary football puzzle is consistent play on special teams. O'Brien told the media this week that he feels like the Nittany Lions have improved in all phases of special teams. The coaching staff is looking for productive play from the core special teams players on kickoff coverage, kickoff return, punt coverage, punt return and kicks.
What to Watch For - Syracuse
1. Like Penn State, the Orange will reveal their quarterback decision on the first offensive play. Senior Drew Allen (transfer from Oklahoma) and sophomore Terrel Hunt have battled for the starting job throughout preseason practice. Both players bring a different skill set to the field for the Orange, making game-week preparations a challenge for the Nittany Lions. Hunt is a versatile athlete who can move well on his feet. Allen is more of a prototypical pocket passer. Both players are expected to play against the Lions.
2. Syracuse boasts a talented running back tandem heading into the 2013 season. Junior captain Jerome Smith, who was named to the 2013 Maxwell Award Watch List, rushed for 1,171 yards in 2012. Smith had five 100-yard games last season and ranked third in the BIG EAST (Syracuse is now in the ACC). Senior Prince-Tyson Gulley led the Orange with nine rushing touchdowns in 2012. Gulley rushed for 830 yards and caught 33 passes.
3. Two senior captains headline the returning players on the Syracuse defense. Defensive tackle Jay Bromley and middle linebacker Marquis Spruill are two names to watch when Penn State has the football. A three-year starter, Bromley enters 2013 as a Preseason All-ACC selection (third team). He ranked third on the team in 2012 in sacks. Spruill, who is also a Preseason All-ACC selection (third team), is tied for 12th on Syracuse's career TFL list with 23.5. He has played in all 38 games during the past three seasons, including 36 starts. The Orange will be looking for a big afternoon from Bromley and Spruill in defending the Penn State running attack led by Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch.
The Final Word:
With nearly 30,000 alums in the New York Metro area, the Nittany Lions are excited to have the opportunity to play in front of Penn State fans in a neutral site. As Coach O'Brien mentioned on Tuesday, anytime a team gets the chance to play in the shadows of New York City, it is a big deal. Penn State has 12 players from New Jersey and two from New York City who will be playing in front of friends and family. Collectively, the players and coaching staff are eager to take the field against someone wearing different colors. For both teams, keeping mistakes to a minimum will play a big role in the outcome of the game. Forecasts are predicting a warm, humid afternoon for the season-opener between the Nittany Lions and Orange. The countdown clock has reached zero. College football is back.
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