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Penn State at Nebraska: Game Preview

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Can Penn State get that elusive first win of 2020?

NCAA Football: Nebraska at Penn State Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Two teams. Five losses. Zero wins. Something has to give as the Nittany Lions face the Huskers in Lincoln.

Penn State (0-3) vs. Nebraska (0-2)

Kickoff: Noon, Memorial Stadium, Lincoln, NE

The Betting Line: Penn State -3

TV: FS1 - Brian Custer (play-by-play), Robert Smith (analyst)

Weather: The day will start off chilly, but will warm up to the low 60s with some sunshine during the afternoon.

COACHES:

James Franklin:

PENN STATE RECORD: 56-26, 7th Year

OVERALL RECORD: 80-41, 10th Year

VS. NEBRASKA: 1-0

Scott Frost:

NEBRASKA RECORD: 9-17, 3rd Year

OVERALL RECORD: 28-24, Fifth Year

VS. PENN STATE: First Meeting

FUN FACTS

NEBRASKA OFFENSE VS. PENN STATE DEFENSE

The Huskers have been utilizing two quarterbacks with similar styles, junior Adrian Martinez and redshirt freshman Luke McCaffrey. While McCaffrey has the much higher completion percentage (76.2% vs. 57.1%) on exactly half the amount of attempts, neither has thrown for a touchdown in two games, and each has one interception. Both are effective runners, and are first and second on the team in rushing yards, maintaining an average north of seven yards per rushing attempt. While Penn State’s secondary may not be challenged as much this week, it will still need to find a way to prevent both players from escaping the pocket and picking up chunks of yardage, which has been a problem through the first three weeks. Scott Frost has yet to name a starting quarterback for Saturday, and may very well make his decision known when the Huskers offense takes the field for the first time.

Outside of the two quarterbacks, Dedrick Mills is the only back to receive regular carries. Mills is a bruiser in the form of Maryland’s Jake Funk and can help wear down a defense. Mills produced 92 yards from scrimmage in the Huskers most revent game, a 21-13 loss to Northwestern.

While Nebraska does not have a single dominant reciever, the quarterback tandem has done an outstanding job of spreading the ball around. There are nine Huskers with at least two catches, with Wan’Dale Robinson leading the way with 10 receptions for 81 yards.

The Huskers have allowed two sacks in each of their first two games against Ohio State and Northwestern.

While Penn State’s defense has been surprisingly poor in several areas, the inability to cover downfield is proving most harmful. Despite the lack of scoring through the air this season, expect the Huskers to test the Nittany Lions secondary early and often with several deep balls.

PENN STATE OFFENSE VS. NEBRASKA DEFENSE

There’s no getting around it, Penn State’s offense is in serious trouble. Sean Clifford seems to have regressed following a promising first year as a starter, regularly overthrowing receivers and getting rattled in the pocket. This is in part to the offensive line struggling to provide ample protection and playing well below expectations considering the talent and experience. The running backs are relying on a true sophomore and two true freshman, while the top two backs are unavailable to see the field. Even Pat Freiermuth has had some uncharacteristic drops. Surprisingly enough, the group that came into the season with the most question marks - wide receiver - has been the highlight of the offense with the star turn of Jahan Dotson and sudden emergence of true freshman Parker Washington and KeAndre Lambert-Smith. It also seems painfully obvious that a new offensive plan was implemented during an offseason with no spring practice and limited opportunities to gather for the necessary repetition to properly execute a new scheme. In fact, the gameplan often resembles something for an offense with a very green quarterback who was thrust into the lineup - not a second-year starter behind a veteran line.

Which brings us to our main point - it’s nearly impossible to begin to understand what to expect from this offense right now. While they have shown the ability to move the ball at times, they have yet to put together a complete game. In fact, they have yet to make it without an extended stretch to horrendous play that nearly removes the possibility of winning a game. I wish I could use this preview to discuss how the two sides match-up, how Penn State could take advantage of weaknesses and how they will need to circumvent the things the Huskers do well. However, a magic 8 ball would produce an accurate assessment based on what we’ve witnessed after three weeks.

One thing to look out for is the involvement of backup quarterback Will Levis, who James Franklin stated would be more involved in the offense moving forward. Levis is a very strong runner and performed well in relief of Clifford against Ohio State in 2019, but it was obvious he is in need of much more polish in his first career start against Rutgers the following week. The staff attempted to work Levis into the lineup in week one against Indiana, but two plays resulted in a delay of game penalty and a lost fumble inside the Hoosiers 10 yard line as Penn State was trying to reduce a deficit right before halftime.

Nebraska’s defense hasn’t done anything particularly well this season either, ranking in the bottom third of most defensive statistics and allowing 36.5 points per game (although in fairness, the ‘Huskers have played in two games with one of those coming against Justin Fields and the Buckeyes).

Freshman safety Miles Farmer picked off two passes against Northwestern last week, and could do some damage if Clifford’s passes continue to sail on him. Middle linebacker Collin Miller leads the team with 13 tackles and is tied for the team lead with 2.0 TFLs.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Nebraska added a new kicker during the offseason when Connor Culp came to Lincoln from LSU as a grad transfer. He is three of four on field goal attempts this season with a long of 38. He is 14-of-20 for his college career and hit his carrer long field goal of 47 yards back in 2017. Culp also handles kickoff duties, and has three touchbacks on eight attempts. Nebraska has an outstanding punter in William Przystup, a Michigan State transfer who is averaging 42.5 yards per punt with three punts over 50 yards in his first three games as starter.

Freshman running back Rahmir Johnson handles kickoff duties for the Huskers, averaging 22 yards per return on the young season.

Jake Pinegar has mirrored the team’s early struggles, missing yet another field goal attempt against Maryland and is now 1 of 4 on the season after connecting on 11 of 12 in 2019. Jordan Stout has done a standout job in his first season as starter at punter, averaging 43.4 yards after replacing four-year starter Blake Gillikin. Parker Washington seems to be emerging as the primary returner as Devyn Ford focuses on carrying a much larger load at running back. Washington is averagig 19 yards per kickoff return, but has shown some promise of breaking one for six points at some point this season.

PREDICTION

Nebraska-27, Penn State-21

There’s no good way of putting it - Penn State is simply stuck in a tailspin after three games. Unlike similar stretches in the past, there aren’t one or two issues to be pointed at that can be fixed for the team to return to its winning ways. There are major issues on both sides of the ball that are well beyond some minor tweaks before the Nittany Lions can expect to come out victorious against just about every Big Ten opponent not named Ohio State.

Unfortunately, an 11 a.m. local kickoff time on the road is not the time and place to pull yourself out of a tailspin.

Nebraska has its fair share of issues, and it’s reasonable to believe that Penn State could earn its first victory of the season on Saturday. But this team has shown little reason to believe they will be up for the task after the most demoralizing loss of the James Franklin era this past Saturday.

Jahan Dotson keeps his hot streak going for two reasons - he has developed into an absolutely fantastic, gamebreaking receiver as a junior, but also, the offense doesn’t have too much else going for it. It will be another big game for Dotson with 10 catches for 150 yards and two scores. Parker Washington will continue his rapid development, with a career high 90 receiving yards.

The defense puts in a strong effort, but are stymied by a couple late Nebraska drives after spending too much time on the field in the second half. Tariq Castro-Fields leads the way with seven tackles and an interception, while Shaka Toney adds another sack and two TFLs.