Analyzing the opposing quarterbacks on Penn State football’s 2020 football schedule

STATE COLLEGE, PA - OCTOBER 05: Sean Clifford #14 of the Penn State Nittany Lions celebrates with head coach James Franklin after scoring a touchdown against the Purdue Boilermakers during the first half at Beaver Stadium on October 5, 2019 in State College, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)
STATE COLLEGE, PA - OCTOBER 05: Sean Clifford #14 of the Penn State Nittany Lions celebrates with head coach James Franklin after scoring a touchdown against the Purdue Boilermakers during the first half at Beaver Stadium on October 5, 2019 in State College, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images) /

The Penn State football schedule is a tale of two halves but when it comes to quarterback play, who should Nittany Lions fans be scared of the most?

We’ve recently discussed the Penn State football schedule and what to expect in 2020 but today we kick off our offseason look at early positional breakdowns of every opponent, starting with the most important position in team sports: the quarterback position.

We’ll take a look at who should be the starter, who could be the starter and then his strengths and weaknesses from either the 2019 season and prior.

Week 1: Kent State — Dustin Crum

One of the nation’s better passers from the 2019 season, Crum flew under the radar a season ago. He’ll certainly be tested in the season opener against Penn State but the Nittany Lions can’t ignore the fact that he had one of the country’s better deep balls a year ago. He completed 69.5% of his passes for 2,606 yards and 20 touchdowns against just two interceptions. Crum also presents an interesting challenge with his legs as well as he ran for 884 yards on the ground and six more scores last year. He’s a big man for how nimble he is on the ground and will absolutely be one of the better quarterbacks Penn State football will have to face in 2020.

Week 2: Virginia Tech — Hendon Hooker

Hooker took the reigns from Ryan Willis a season ago in Blacksburg and the difference was incredible. He returns as the team’s signal-caller for the future under head coach Justin Fuente after rushing for 497 yards and five scores and completing 60.7% of his passes for 1,555 yards and 13 touchdowns against just two picks. He represents the second of back-to-back quarterbacks to pose legitimate dual-threat options that Penn State will have to square off against as Hooker torched defenses early in the year last season before an injury really cut short his chances.

Week 3: San Jose State — Nick Starkel

Starkel’s journey is an incredible one with the new transfer portal opportunities. He’s played two seasons at Texas A&M, another season at Arkansas in 2019 and now will finish his career with the Spartans meaning this is the third straight quarterback with some serious firepower that Penn State will have to square off against to start the year. Starkel has thrown for 3,114 career passing yards but finished last year with a career-high 10 interceptions despite just 180 attempts. He is absolutely a better passer than he is a rusher as the latter is not part of his game and when he is on point with some of this throws, you understand why he was the starter for the Aggies back in 2017 and a sought after transfer in 2019 and again in 2020. He’ll have to prove he’s more of the quarterback who started the season strong for Arkansas last year than the quarterback who didn’t throw a single touchdown in his final four outings for the Razorbacks if he wants to keep the job ahead of Nick Nash for San Jose State.

Week 4: Northwestern — Aidan Smith

Smith found his way into the starting lineup last season for Northwestern after former 5-star recruit and Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson didn’t seem to latch on. Smith likely lands as the starter but spring ball will tell us a lot more. Smith finished the year with a sub-50% completion percentage and just three touchdowns against nine interceptions. The Northwestern receivers certainly didn’t do their part as they had big issues with drops but Smith wasn’t nearly as accurate as a quarterback needs. This seems like the most favorable matchup of the early slate of games and a comfortable way to start Big Ten conference play.

Week 5: Michigan — Dylan McCaffrey

McCaffrey is one of the nation’s most polarizing players entering this season as he takes over for Shea Patterson. He’s the son of former Denver Bronco great Ed McCaffrey and brother of Nebraska backup QB Luke McCaffrey and Carolina Panthers RB Christian McCaffrey. Dylan has attempted just 35 passes in his career and completed just 18, looking much better in his limited time in 2018 than he did in 2019. He has some injury concerns but every bit of the talent that even Patterson did ahead of him. Five weeks into his tenure as the starter, we definitely should know a lot more, and at this time, it’s likely best to temper expectations and throw an asterisk at how difficult this Michigan game will be for Penn State football.

Week 7: Iowa — Spencer Petras

Petras is certainly slated to be the starter for the Hawkeyes this year after he enrolled early and sat behind long-time starter Nate Stanley for two seasons. He’s a large man at 6-foot-5, 227 pounds but has thrown just 11 passes in his two-year career to date. Back in high school, he lit up the scoreboards, however, and he looks every bit of a menacing quarterback from a pocket-passing standpoint that Iowa seems to churn out.

Week 8: Ohio State — Justin Fields

One of the nation’s leaders in Heisman odds entering the year, Fields is hands down the most difficult quarterback on Penn State’s schedule in 2020 as he’s also perhaps the nation’s best or second-best in the conversation with Trevor Lawrence. Fields was absolutely dominant in basically every outing a year ago and can make all the throws down the field. He’s one of the better pocket passers and is dominant on straight dropbacks. His biggest wrinkle is definitely that of his legs but with his arm strength and accuracy, his legs have to become an afterthought. It’s pivotal for Penn State to lock down in coverage because Fields can hit every window, even the tightest ones that are presented to him by a defense. This is as marquee of a matchup as it gets in terms of quarterback play and by far the best quarterback that Penn State football will face.

Week 9: Indiana — Michael Penix

Penix is so good that even a resurgent Peyton Ramsey over the back half of the 2019 season couldn’t do enough to stay and has since entered the transfer portal. Before his injury, Penix showed just how dominant he could be with the ball and completed 68.1% of his throws while averaging 8.6 yards per pass attempt. He was a tremendous downfield passer as well as a strong straight dropback passer with more than adequate legs to get the job done if the pocket breaks down on him. If his small sample size from last season proved anything, it’s that Penn State fans and the Nittany Lion defense should absolutely not overlook the importance of this Hoosiers game in 2020. It’s a race for third-best quarterback that Penn State will face this season behind Fields and Penix.

Week 10: Nebraska — Adrian Martinez

What really could have been last season was for not for Martinez as he largely disappointed under Scott Frost in Year 2. Still, Martinez finds himself on a shortlist for Heisman odds, trending right there and even above our own Sean Clifford. Martinez struggled to find much success to basically any level of the field and really added only a few moments with his legs. Considering we’re expecting Martinez to lead one of the country’s blue-blood programs and we’re comparing him to the skillset that Frost had with McKenzie Milton at UCF, Martinez will need an absolutely dominant beginning of the year to possibly even keep the starting gig until the Penn State football game. Time will tell but Nebraska will not get over the hump unless Martinez plays better.

Week 11: Michigan State — Rocky Lombardi

The Brian Lewerke era is over in East Lansing, just like the Mark Dantonio era is as well. Lombardi will likely get the nod unless something else changes or a youngster emerges through spring and early fall. Lombardi has thrown 175 passes in his career and completed just 42.9% of those attempts with just three touchdowns (all in 2018) and five interceptions. He’ll certainly look to improve but in his appearance against Penn State last year, this one seems to be a cakewalk. Lombardi attempted six passes against the Nittany Lions last year, completing one to his own receivers and one to the good guys. He completed 33.3% of his passes for the year in 2019.

Week 12: Maryland — Josh Jackson

Jackson forced the transfer of Tyrell Pigrome this offseason and he was largely overrated to start the year last season. He struggled mightily to get the ball to his receivers and really had his troubles outside of the pocket as well inside it where he couldn’t receive much protection. This is a long shot at projecting he’ll even be the starter this late into the season but another favorable matchup for Penn State.

Week 13: Rutgers — Johnny Langan (we’ll see)

The Scarlet Knights are a bit of a wild card, especially in the late stages of November this season. Langan looks to be the starter on paper going into the year but this is a team that had three quarterbacks attempt at least 50 passes last season so the likelihood of Langan lasting all the way through is slim. Under new (old) head coach Greg Schiano, the quarterback play is likely to get better but it doesn’t seem likely to with the given quarterbacks on the roster. This is a terrific way to end the regular season with four favorable matchups including arguably their easiest matchup coming against Rutgers.