Nebraska Cornhuskers (7-2)(6-3) vs.
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. Memorial Stadium (Capacity: 81,091), Lincoln, NE
The Line: Nebraska -8.5
TV: ABC/ESPN2 -- Sean McDonough (play by play), Chris Spielman (analyst)
Weather: Isolated thunderstorms, high of 79
PENN STATE RECORD: 6-3, 1st year
OVERALL RECORD: Same
VS. NEBRASKA: First Meeting
NEBRASKA RECORD: 46-18, 5th year
OVERALL RECORD: Same
VS. PENN STATE: 1-0
Purdue Offense vs PSU Defense -
What's crazier: The fact that Matt McGloin leads the Big Ten in passing, that Taylor Martinez is second, or that the gap between them is 55 yards per game? Either way, just as Penn State has seen a massive improvement from their quarterback, so too has Nebraska earned a renewed faith in its signal-caller. And in addition to a newfound ability to throw the ball efficiently, Martinez has maintained the scrambling and rushing ability that had allowed the Husker faithful to in the past put up with his passing struggles. He's had three hundred-yard running games this season, headlined by the 202 he put up against a very stout Michigan State defense. All in all, Martinez has become the leader of the Big Ten's #2 scoring offense, and has worked his way into the mix for a whole mess of end-of-season awards.
That's the good news about Martinez, but just as with any young quarterback, it's not all so rosy. A lot of those passing numbers were padded by big games against poor teams, and Martinez has come back to earth lately. He's thrown seven interceptions in the past four weeks, with 3-pick games against Ohio State and Michigan State, and was just 16-36 passing a week ago. But other than Braxton Miller, he's still the best QB Ted Roof's defense will have gone up against, and in terms of passing, he's probably the best.
The surrounding cast is talented and versatile, and led by running back Ameer Abdullah, who overtook the now-injured Rex Burkhead as Nebraska's primary rusher. Abdullah is coming off three straight 100-yard games, and is a smaller, quicker back who likes to do his damage out of spread sets and sweeps. (Think Venric Mark, but slippier and not quite as fast.) Abudllah and Martinez tag-team a potent run game--the best in the Big Ten--which has put up almost twice as many yards on the ground as Penn State this season. Meanwhile, sixteen Nebraska receivers have caught passes and ten different Huskers have caught touchdown passes, but only two--Kenny Bell and Quincy Enunwa--average more than two catches per game.
For the first time since Ohio, maybe, Ted Roof's defense will have to be ready for a team that can beat its opponents both through the air and on the ground, and that can run the option, too. Penn State had success defending against Braxton Miller's scrambles and designed runs before the defense got worn out and the referees decided never to call any holding penalties, and Martinez, though a skilled runner, is no Braxton Miller. But he's also a significantly better thrower, and so the burden is going to have to be on the front 7--especially Gerald Hodges, who will likely be shadowing Martinez all day--to bottle up the run game, so Penn State doesn't have to put a defensive back in the box. And generating pressure would be huge--Martinez has taken 18 sacks, and Nebraska's offensive line play has been the middling part of an otherwise dynamic offense. Lastly, Nebraska's -9 in the turnover margin, worst in the Big Ten (Penn State's +9, and best), and if Roof's defense can force a turnover or two, that would be huge against an offense that has proved itself capable of digging itself out of big holes.
Schematic Advantage: Nebraska
PSU Offense vs Nebraska Defense -
The Nebraska defense has had an up-and-down season--there are few teams that have allowed 63 points one week, then nine, two weeks later. But, for the most part, this has been a Nebraska team that has been led by its offense, rather than the Big Ten's #9 scoring defense, one that's tenth against the run, ahead of only Purdue and Indiana. Hell, last week, Michigan State put up 24 on the Husker D--and that doesn't sound like a lot, but the Spartans have topped that once since September 8th, when they played Indiana. And that includes a game that went into double overtime.
Like the offense, it's played better late in games--it's hard to pull off the kind of comebacks that Nebraska has without the defense giving the offense the chance to get back into games--but it's got more holes than the offense, and Bill O'Brien ought to be able to figure out a plan of attack.
First and foremost, he'll have to neutralize the Husker pass rush, which is tied with Penn State for the best in the league. Led by Eric Martin's 6.5 sacks, Nebraska is deep and aggressive and will come at you from a whole bunch of different angles--14 different Huskers have at least half a sack through the first nine weeks. The other standout on the D is linebacker Will Compton who leads the team in tackles and has a nose for the ball. Nebraska matches up especially well with this Penn State offense, though--it ranks 2nd in the league in pass defense behind only Michigan--though with 11 touchdowns, it's actually allowed more through the air than has the much-maligned Penn State pass defense.
But don't get too excited--opposing passers have completed just 46% of its passes against Nebraska which is by far the best in the conference. The biggest weakness, per our bros at Corn Nation, is against a power running game, so it'll probably take a heavy dose of Zach Zwinak for Penn State's offense to be successful Saturday. Getting Kyle Carter back would be a pretty big deal, too--he's needed far more than he was last week, when Penn State beat up on Purdue without him. The one thing Matt McGloin likely doesn't have to worry about is turning the ball over--Nebraska has just 6 interceptions this year, and he's done a fantastic job taking care of the ball all season long.
Schematic Advantage: Penn State (but just barely)
Special Teams -
Penn State is getting better, here, as Sam Ficken continues to hit the short field goals and build confidence. But this is an area where Nebraska excels. Brett "Don't Call Me Bill" Maher has taken a step back from his terrific 2011 season, but is still 12/18 on field goals, and 42/42 on extra points, while also admirably handling the punting game--he's only middle of the pack there, but that's a whole lot better than Alex Butterworth. And Ameer Abdullah's first in the Big Ten in punt returns, by a wide margin, averaging almost 14 yards per return. Good thing Butterworth's got that directional punting thing down pat.
Schematic Advantage: Nebraska
Here's the thing about Nebraska--they've been a remarkably resilient team. Let's throw out the ancient history of their wins over the likes of Idaho State and Arkansas State--in three of their four conference wins, they've come back from big second half deficits. There's good news and bad news to take out of that for Penn State.
The good is that tomorrow, like in all but one game this season, they'll likely be able to come out and take an early lead. The Lions are by far the best first-quarter team in the nation, and with the Huskers' history of sluggish starts, it's imperative that McGloin find the end zone early and often. The bad news, then, comes from the fact that Nebraska's comfortable playing from behind, and for a Penn State offense that's gone into long lulls at times this season, they can't afford to fall asleep.
The difference in this one will likely be how well Martinez plays, and for that, how far you think Penn State's passing defense has come. If you can force Martinez turnovers, especially by limiting Abdullah's efficiency in the run game and making T-Mart throw more than Pelini would like, Penn State should be able to win this game, because they don't give it up as much. If Martinez can avoid the big mistake, Nebraska should continue its winning ways at home. Because I'm a shameless homer, I'll say that Penn State is able to keep the run game in check, Adrian Amos has a big interception late, and Matt McGloin gets the signature road win that puts him firmly in the running for Big Ten POY.
Penn State 27, Nebraska 23
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