Penn State heads to Lincoln for its biggest road test this season on Saturday, and they'll have a chance to throw a wrench into the plans of the presumptive Legends Division champions. So, as always, we reached out to the foremost authority on the Lions' opposition, and our friends at Corn Nation are just that. Thanks to the whole gang for lending a helping hand in enlightening us about the Big Ten's newest members.
So thanks a ton, gang, and remember to check out Corn Nation all season long to stay up to date on the Huskers, and be sure to check out what I had to say when they put me on the hot seat.
On to the questions!
Black Shoe Diaries: With that win over Michigan a couple weeks back and the, uh, controversial win over Sparty last week, Nebraska's got the Legends Division all but sewn up. What needs to happen to make this a successful season for Nebraska?
Billgrip: At this point anything less than a Big Ten championship would be a disappointment. Even though Michigan could lose at least one more game, winning out would put the Huskers at 10-2 with a top 15 ranking heading into the Big Ten championship game.
Aaron: Nebraska has a few games to go before they can wrap up the division. As for the penalties, we discussed them after the Michigan State game. There were questionable pass interference penalties that went against Nebraska early that lead to an MSU touchdown. We came to the conclusion that even though there were a lot of bad calls, the refs were consistent about calling them both ways. In football, sometimes you get the breaks, sometimes the other team does. You just hope that over time things even out. As far as this being a successful season? I would just like to see them be competitive the rest of the way out and maybe make the Rose Bowl.
Husker Mike: Frankly, win out...and that means win four more games. That’s a conference title; the first this century and a BCS bowl berth.
BSD: I'm not sure what's more surprising: that Matt McGloin is a good quarterback now, or that Taylor Martinez is. How has Martinez taken his game to the next level?
Billgrip: Martinez spent time in the offseason with QB guru Steve Calhoun working on his mechanics and footwork. Martinez seems to be sliding back into old form as the season goes on (as far as mechanics go), but overall he has been much better as a passer. Just look at his stats. Another factor in his improvement is simply being in the same offense two years in a row for the first time...ever. Last but not least, he has an incredibly talented group of receivers to throw the ball to.
Aaron: He worked really hard to make himself better over the offseason. He is now the career yardage leader at Nebraska, and he has one season left to play. He’s more comfortable with his teammates to do their jobs so that he can do his.
Jon: What those guys said and simply more experience. He knows when to take off to gain yardage, when to slide to save himself, and (mostly) what to do with the ball. And it doesn’t hurt that he’s in the second year of Tim Beck’s offense. Now... if only he could take acting lessons or maybe join the Rotary or take some speech communication courses. Then he’d be like George Clooney as a quarterback demi-god next season and a sure Heisman shoe-in!
BSD: How do you explain Nebraska's Jekyll-and-Hyde routine, where they're so good at home and so bad on the road?
Billgrip: Honestly, the Jekyll-and-Hyde routine isn’t limited to the road. Over the past few seasons, Nebraska has had at least one or two games at home where they sleep-walk through the game. That hasn’t happened this year...yet. However, Taylor Martinez has played much better at home this year and I have no idea why. Martinez only has 1 interception at home this year, and 7 on the road. Overall, it’s been very frustrating over the past few years to watch this team play so well one week, and then so poorly the next. This year it’s not even week to week- it’s quarter to quarter. Against Wisconsin, Northwestern, and Michigan State, it was like an entirely different team was playing in the 4th quarter...a team that’s pretty stinking good. Meanwhile, the other 3 quarters it was like a team that couldn’t do anything right.
Aaron: They have played some quality teams on the road this year (UCLA, Ohio State, Northwestern, Michigan State). The did need a comeback against Wisconsin this year too. The team just needs to figure out how to get things rolling earlier in the game to take some stress off of them later on.
Husker Mike: I don’t think road versus home has anything to do with it. It’s more inconsistency than anything. We keep hoping that we’ll see the maddening mistakes reduced, but by November, it’s clear that those mistakes are simply part of Nebraska’s DNA this season.
Jon: Wait a minute. We’re only in our second year of the B1G, guys. We’re still in unfamiliar territory, it’s not that just the players haven’t played in any of these stadiums, the coaching and support staffs haven’t either. That’s important. It’s the little things that can throw your game off. For example, let’s say that the water at East Lansing tastes tinny and the coaching staff knows one of the starting linemen hates tinny water, thinks that it’s poison. The staff needs to know that ahead of time and make sure that player stays away from the water. Now, let’s say the same thing about a starting wide receiver and fat Asian girls. So, who knew there were so many fat Asian girls in Evanston? Well, on the next trip, the staff will note that "water tastes tinny" when going to East Lansing and "many fat Asian girls" when going to Evanston so they can avoid those things and the team will retain more focus.
BSD: Is Rex Burkhead going to play on Saturday? If not, how much does that hurt Nebraska's chances?
Billgrip: Before this season started, pretty much everyone agreed that Rex Burkhead getting hurt would be a total disaster for this offense. He got hurt in the 1st quarter of the season opener, and I am convinced we wouldn’t have lost to UCLA the next week if Rex had played. However, since that time the offense adjusted and Ameer Abdullah has proven to be a more than capable backup. He’s a little guy that can gain tough yards and also has the speed to break off big runs. That being said, there is only one Rex Burkhead. He’s easily the most experienced, trustworthy running back on the team. No one can break a tackle like Rex. Late in a game there’s no one I’d rather see with the ball than Burkhead.
Aaron: Not sure. To be honest, I think he might be about done for the year. He has to start thinking about his future and being able to walk is important. If we see him, great. If not, we hope he gets better.
Husker Mike: Don’t bet on it. My guess is that he’s going to sit out a couple more weeks. One thing we’ve learned is that Ameer Abdullah might be a better all-around back than Burkhead. Burkhead is a fan favorite with his non-stop effort, but he’s not a gamebreaker. Abdullah is that kind of back.
BSD: Most of the good Nebraska teams in recent memory have won with defense, but outside of shutting down Denard Robinson, this year's unit has been shaky. Where can the Penn State offense exploit the Husker D, and where will it have trouble?
Billgrip: The defense has improved in recent weeks, but still struggles stopping the run. On the flipside, Nebraska is actually in the top 10 in several passing defense categories. However, this Saturday will be the most Nebraska’s secondary has been tested all year. It will be interesting to see how they hold up.
Aaron: The defense has played a lot better recently. They are gelling at the right time. Historically, Bo Pelini likes to play to prevent big plays, but that tends to lead to easy yards on the ground. The past couple years, we haven’t had a dominating defensive lineman to really plug up the center of the field and get pressure on the quarterback. Opposing teams with solid offensive lines have been able to contain us and have been successful at getting 3-5 yards per carry by just running it right at us.
Husker Mike: The key to exploiting Nebraska’s defense is having a running back to complement a mobile quarterback. Two rushing threats is something that Nebraska struggles with.
Jon: UCLA scouted us well and had a whole group of their sideline staff dress as warrior nuns. It freaked out the whole secondary for an entire half. Now that the season has gone on, everyone’s settled into minor ticks, so unless you plan on having centaur-riding orcs who can cast magic missile, you are completely screwed. There are no weaknesses on this defense anymore, especially at home.
BSD: How do you see this one shaking out?
Billgrip: This Husker team is like a box of chocolates...making predicting how they’ll play a big challenge. I think that Penn State is a very good team, and I’m very impressed with Bill O’Brien. But the Huskers seem very set on getting to the Big 10 championship, and this one is at home. Advantage, Nebraska...right? Ah, but turnovers could be a huge equalizer in this game. The Huskers just can’t help but turn the ball over a couple times a game this year. It’s not matter of if, but when. Penn State is best in the Big 10 with a +9 margin, while Nebraska is worst and has a -9 margin. I’ll say if Nebraska ends the game with anything worse than -2, this will be a close game that could go either way. I predict Nebraska finishes at exactly -2 in turnovers and sneaks out a win. Nebraska 28, Penn State 20
Aaron: Penn State will likely win this game if they can get turnovers and capitalize on them. Also, at least a 20 point lead going into the fourth quarter would be ideal for the Lions. Prediction? If you’re coming out for the game, the weather will be gorgeous.
Husker Mike: I think I’ve given up trying to predict how Nebraska is going to play, other than to expect them to screw up a bunch of things, and come storming back late. So Huskers 31, Penn State 21.
Jon: No secret to this one at all. It’s at home, where Martinez and everyone else is comfortable. Nebraska will be in destroy mode, there will be no need for come from behind heroics - my liver has seen the future and spoken to me about it. Nebraska 35, Penn State 21
Thanks again for helping out, guys, and be sure to check CornNation later this week for my answers to their questions.