Series History: Tied 7-7
Time/TV: 3:30 p.m., ABC or ESPN2
While looking at the top 25 schedule for Saturday, it quickly dawned on me that this week is pretty much a dog week (whenever ESPN College Gameday is on an aircraft carrier, that’s a pretty good sign). I think the top 2 teams (Alabama, K-State) will run roughshod over their two opponents (Texas A&M, TCU). Oregon and Notre Dame have two cupcake games Saturday, so the top four should remain unchanged.
I then took a look at the Big 10 and saw a matchup between two programs that normally would have big time bowl ramifications. Nebraska and Penn State are two of the most successful programs in college football, and their fan bases are some of the most dedicated in the country. I was also reminded of last year at this time the Penn State football program was changed forever. Penn State was the standard bearer of ethics in football and that reputation virtually imploded overnight with the arrest of Jerry Sandusky and the subsequent firing of Joe Paterno. Penn State’s first game after the charges were filed against Sandusky was against Nebraska in Beaver Stadium in State College, PA. Many sportswriters and alumni argued the game shouldn’t have been played, and it was such an odd atmosphere in the stadium it almost seemed that the fans didn’t know whether to cheer or cry.
While Penn State will not be going to any bowl games in it’s near future, Coach Bill O’Brien has done a remarkable job in keeping the Nittany Lions competitive in the Big Ten. They have a daunting task though this Saturday against the Cornhuskers in Lincoln. Nebraska is undefeated at home this year and Coach Bo Pelini has the Cornhuskers on the inside track to win the Legends division title. It should be a battle in front of a raucous, red wearing crowd in Lincoln on Saturday, so without further ado here’s what to look for from each side of the ball.
When Nebraska is on Offense
Give and Take: Nebraska has shown an uncanny ability to shoot itself in the foot with turnovers and penalties this year. Nebraska’s QB Taylor Martinez leads the Big Ten in turnovers with 13. The flipside with Martinez’s play is he has led the Cornhuskers from double digit deficits in three out of four in conference wins. It’s kind of a cause and effect with Nebraska’s offense this year. They turned the ball over eight times against Wisconsin, Northwestern and Michigan State which resulted in five scores against them. Martinez threw three interceptions last Saturday against the Spartans, but also accounted for two touchdowns. Nebraska leads the Big Ten in total offense with 487.3 yards per game. Their rushing average is 269.6 yards per game. I’d look for the Cornhuskers to play old fashioned three yards and a cloud of dust offense against the Nittany Lions, and try to limit Martinez to quick speed option plays with RB Ameer Abdullah. You can kind of read between the lines when Coach Pelini uses terms like “He’s growing as a football player” about Martinez, and still doesn’t fully trust him. The path to get to the Big Ten championship game is easy after this game for Nebraska, so it’s up to the offense to stop giving the opposition good field position with an ill-timed turnover. They will continue to run the no-huddle to keep the Penn State defense on their heels. It’s a dangerous game when you count on catching up and winning every second half, and the Penn State defense will not allow the Huskers to catch up and win.
When Penn State is on Defense
Road Warriors: Penn State has a road record of 3-1 with their only loss coming at Virginia at the beginning of the year, where their starting field goal kicker missed four field goals and one extra point. The defense has traveled well, but will face a true test against Nebraska who have a huge offensive line, and average 269 rushing yards a game. The secondary must be aware of the play action that Nebraska pulls out of it’s sleeve from time to time. The most important thing that the Nittany Lions defense has to do is limit the first down gains from the Cornhusker offense. Nebraska averages 7 yard gains on first down, which gives the offense a huge advantage to use the play action on 2nd and 3rd down. Penn State’s defense did a fantastic job in containing Martinez last year, and will look for the opportunity to capitalize on a turnover early to take the hostile home crowd out of the game.
When Penn State is on Offense
Mix it Up: Penn State’s offense has enjoyed a resurgence this year and quarterback Matt McGloin is having a stellar season under Coach O’Brien’s system. With McGloin’s improved play, and a stable of running backs pounding out yards for the offense, the Penn State offense has become a force to be reckoned with in the Big 10. The offense has given the Nittany Lions the early lead in scoring first in eight of nine games this season. The running back combo of Zach Zwinak and Michael Zordich will look to keep the Penn State offense in sustained long drives, and McGloin will use his 271 yards per game air attack, and the ability to move around the pocket and gain yards with his feet to keep the Nebraska defense honest. Look for McGloin to hand the ball off to Zwinak on 1st downs and Zordich in short yardage situations. I’d expect McGloin to target WR Brandon Moseby-Felder for a big gain at some point of the game. While in the red zone, K Sam Ficken had his first multi-field goal game of his career last week against Purdue, so it’s hopefully no longer an issue to bring him out. He started the season 2 for 8 in FG attempts. The battle will be won in the gameplan, and Coach O’Brien has the offense ready to take on a tough Nebraska defense.
When Nebraska is on Defense
Red Menace: Penn State’s offense has a balanced attack but typically relies on the run to pick up it’s tough yards. The strength of the Nebraska defense has been it’s pass defense which ranks 2nd in the Big 10 and is only limiting it’s opponents to a 46 percent completion percentage. If the Cornhuskers secondary can contain the Penn State tight ends and limit the big play, it will force McGloin to make tight throws into coverage. The thing that the Penn State offense doesn’t do is turn the ball over often. They are 1st in the Big 10 in turnover margin and Nebraska is the worst in the Big 10 in turnover margin. It’s probably going to be a fact that the defense will have to contend with a short field after a turnover, and limiting the Penn State offense to a field goal try would be key in minimizing the damage done when the inevitable Martinez turnover happens. The Penn State offensive line has done a great job with protecting the QB this year. The Nebraska defense has worked on disrupting wide receiver routes all week in hoping that McGloin will have to hold the ball a little longer and give the defensive line the opportunity for a sack.
Laying the Wood (Facts that will knock you off your feet)
- Penn State has outscored it’s opponents 76-3 in the first quarter and 137-33 in the first half. That leads the nation in fewest points allowed in each category.
- Nebraska has won three out of the last four meetings against Penn State.
- In 1994, Nebraska and Penn State were ranked #1 and #2 and ended the season undefeated. Since their was no BCS at the time, Nebraska played #3 Miami in the Orange Bowl and Penn State played #12 Oregon in the Rose Bowl. Both won, but Nebraska was crowned the national champion.
- Some of the early nicknames for the Nebraska programs were the “Hawkeyes,” the “Antelopes,” the “Bugeaters,” and the “Mankilling Mastodons. The “Cornhuskers’ nickname was made permanent in 1900.
- Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium holds the NCAA record for consecutive sellouts at 321, and counting. The streak began in 1962.
The Football Mentalist Predicts (record 1-4)
Nebraska’s path to the Rose Bowl is pretty easy after this game. I think Penn State gives them their last, tough challenge but the home team will prevail. If you’re a Penn State fan, me picking against them might be the best thing.
Nebraska 20, Penn State 14