Penn State fans were met with a pleasant surprise on Tuesday when the Nittany Lions jumped up to No. 10 in the College Football Playoff rankings. All it took was a win over Rutgers and a little bit of help, and Penn State is back in play for a New Year’s Six bowl game. That gives the team’s final two regular season a little bit of extra juice. Win, and the Lions likely get a prestigious bowl game against a high-profile opponent. Lose, and James Franklin will have some serious questions to answer about his squad’s motivation.
There’s a good chance that the Lions will take care of business this Saturday against Nebraska. This is a group of Nittany Lions that hasn’t laid an egg all season — Personally, I think that losing close games to ranked teams on the road is acceptable, if disappointing — going up against a team with a lame-duck coach that has already been blown out by Minnesota and Ohio State this season.
The Cornhuskers have shown character this year with a comeback win on the road against Purdue, but it seems that most of their fans are just waiting for the season to end. From talking to some Nebraska bloggers, it’s hard not to feel good about Penn State’s chances of winning comfortably.
So thanks go out to Jon, Patrick, Nate, Andy, and Mike from Corn Nation for being good sports and answering our questions. If Penn State doesn’t score at least 60 points on Saturday, I’m going to blame you guys.
Black Shoe Diaries: What is Tanner Lee's status headed into Saturday's game? The starting quarterback was forced out of the Minnesota game due to injury, but before that he seemed to be throwing the ball pretty well.
Jon Johnston: The latest is that he is still in concussion protocol and that backup Patrick O’Brien will get the start. O’Brien has not played a lot this season, although he did get the second half against Minnesota. Perhaps he can get some first downs and keep the clock running. That would be nice.
Patrick Gerhart: The line is a walking MASH unit so his status is uncertain if he plays or not.
Nate McHugh: The coaching staff said they are going to wait up until the start of the game. I’m fine with that as long as it is a form of misdirection when they know he’s going to be out. There is nothing really to gain at this point and the backup Patrick O’Brien really could use the experience.
Andy Ketterson: Sounds like we’ll find out on Saturday. My guess is no. If there’s any chance that he’s still suffering from concussion effects, there is absolutely no reason to trot him out there.
Husker Mike: In the spring, Lee and O’Brien were so interchangeable that Billy Devaney, NU’s executive director of player personnel (for another couple of weeks), called them “Tanner O’Brien and Patrick Lee.” Last week, the stats for the two quarterbacks were very similar, so if Lee doesn’t play, don’t expect a huge drop-off in performance (not that the Huskers’ 4-6 record sets any high expectations, either).
BSD: Earlier in the year, Lee threw nine interceptions during a three-game span against Oregon, Northern Illinois, and Rutgers, but he's been much better lately with zero interceptions in three of his last four games. What has been behind the improvement?
Jon: It’s a matter of settling into the position and learning to eat the ball or throw it away sometimes. I mean… many of these weren’t just interceptions. He threw two pick-sixes against Northern Illinois that cost Nebraska the game, and probably cost Mike Riley his job. He certainly hasn’t been the problem with the team lately, but he gets blamed for it anyway.
Patrick: I agree with Jon. Lee has become more comfortable with the position here at Nebraska. It’s been two years since he’s been in a game and that was back before he transferred from Tulane. The receivers have also developed as the season has gone along. Many of them are young and stepping up from high school to this level can be a challenge right out of the gates. You can see guys running their routes a lot better than they were earlier on.
Nate: The only thing I would add to the above is that there was a play during the Illinois game where Tanner Lee threw the ball out of bounds — on purpose. And I literally said, “Holy crap. He did it. He actually did it!” And I would say the Illinois game was the first game in which Tanner started playing much better.
Mike: After Lee threw yet another awful pick-six against Rutgers, he was loudly booed by some fans. That seemed to focus Lee, who seemed to finally realize that “I can’t keep doing that anymore.” Since then, he’s become a more competent game manager. He’s not the NFL prospect that some tried to peddle this summer, but he’s actually matured into a decent Big Ten quarterback.
BSD: Earlier in the season, it looked like Stanley Morgan Jr. was Nebraska's top receiver, but lately JD Spielman has come on strong with a pair of monster performances against Ohio State and Minnesota. What makes the diminutive freshman such a great target?
Jon: Spielman is extremely fast and has decent hands. And they’ve figured out how to get him involved in the game. In the right situation, the right matchup, all he has to do is break one tackle and he’s gone.
Patrick: Spielman is one of those receivers that I was speaking about above. Now that he knows the system a little better, he is performing at a very nice level. Huge potential down the road for him.
Nate: If the “clutch gene” is a real thing, then I believe Spielman has it. I don’t have the stats with me, but he is one of the top receivers in the country on third and fourth down. He spent last season on the scout team with Lee, so there is probably a level of comfort there as well, but he always seems to get open on those big downs.
Andy: Spielman is that rare combination of physical skill, speed, and a motor that won’t quit. From the coaching staff to a chunk of the roster, there’s some guys that have cashed it in this season. JD is not one of them.
BSD: The Nebraska defense is going to be a topic of conversation this week after it allowed over 400 rushing yards to Minnesota. What has given the unit so much trouble this year, and can it be the cure for a Penn State rushing attack that had trouble moving forward against Rutgers last week?
Jon: Riley hired Bob Diaco as defensive coordinator and moved to a 3-4 defense this season. Nebraska doesn’t have the linebackers to play the 3-4. As they’ve given up points and yards, they appear to be mentally lost, they routinely play out of position, and it’s fair to wonder whether or not they’ve just given up and are waiting for this season to be over along with the rest of us. I’d fully expect Saquon Barkley to get 300 yards.
Patrick: Along with our linebackers who do not fit well into this brand-new system that they just started learning less than a year ago, our secondary has been taking hits since last spring in regards to bringing the unit only a handful of healthy players. At this point, guys are just out of it and you can tell on the field. Minnesota was a case example of this. Whatever drive they had earlier on this season is gone.
Nate: Sometimes we have to remember that these are 18- to 22-year-old college kids who could be more interested in what’s going on after the game among anything else. To me, it looks like they are trying to get through the season without getting hurt. So they aren’t putting their bodies on the line to make a tackle for a two-yard gain, which then turns into a 10-yard gain. If I see my teammate not willing to put it all on the line, then why should I? It has just been snowballing.
Andy: The defensive coordinator position has been a hot mess since Riley arrived. He brought in his buddy Mark Banker from Oregon State, whose defenses ranked anywhere from mediocre to awful during his time there. That was followed up with Diaco who was hired with an edict to “fix it now” and instead he has made Banker’s defenses something to remember fondly. When he opens his mouth he babbles incoherently about things like the “strain,” talks about the years needed to implement his scheme, and blames everyone but himself.
If his interaction with the players is anything like his public blatherings, then it’s little wonder why they appear lost and zoned out.
BSD: Is head coach Mike Riley as good as gone at this point? Can he save his job with wins over Penn State and Iowa to close out the year? Does he not deserve a longer leash after going 9-3 a season ago?
Jon: He’s gone. He’s not going to beat Penn State, and probably not going to beat Iowa. The only thing Nebraska fans are looking for in these next two games are for them to be over, and for us to not be embarrassed too badly. Does he deserve a longer leash? Not at this point. His job was gone when athletic director Shawn Eichorst was fired two or three games into the season.
You could talk about how unfair it is — firing a guy before his recruits really get on the field — but it’s moot at this point. The team has come apart, Riley has lost the fan base, and if he came back next season people might not buy season tickets. That would put the holiest of holy icons — THE SELLOUT STREAK — in jeopardy. If that were to happen, someone, possibly entire families, would have to be burned at the stake for the blasphemy they’ve committed.
Patrick: Three years is not enough time for anyone to turn a program around. However, this is Nebraska and expectations are high as you folks can empathize with. With former AD Shawn Eichorst gone, fans getting impatient, the local press coming down hard, and recruiting taking a hit because of everything we mentioned, there is no way Riley is here leading the team after Iowa. There are a lot more reasons that explain everything but that will come out later on. All wins against Penn State and Iowa will do is help the players’ morale, if anything.
Also, the more I think about it… winning these last two just might rip this state apart in regards to the program.
Nate: Unless AD Bill Moos swings and misses on several candidates on his list, then Mike Riley is gone. I was a Bo Pelini guy until the end. I wanted him to succeed. I have wanted Mike Riley to succeed even more. You always want to see the good guys do well, and he has been nothing but a professional from day one. It really sucks. But you need to win games.
Should he get a longer leash after winning nine games last year? Probably. But it is not only how many games you lose, but also who you lose to, and how you lose. The Northwestern and Oregon losses were okay. Maybe even the Wisconsin loss was okay. But the losses to to Northern Illinois, Ohio State, and Minnesota were back-breakers. First, you should not lose to Northern Illinois. Second, there was no fight against Ohio State and Minnesota.
Andy: Mike’s a nice guy and that’s very lucky for him because otherwise he would be getting eviscerated for the shit show he‘s created. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t blame him personally — hell, if I was languishing in the bottom of my conference regularly and Nebraska offered me the lottery, I’d take it too.
But the fact is that it was a horrible, stupid hire from the get-go and it played out about exactly as any reasonable person should have expected. Our dopey former AD stated that we needed to bring in somebody who can get past the nine-game hump and start competing for conference and national titles and then hired a guy who’d never even sniffed any of that as a head coach. After a 5-7 opening record with the easiest schedule in recent memory following seven straight nine- to 10-win seasons, the apologists then tried to make it sound like he was hired for a rebuild instead of facing the fact that he was creating one.
The fact is that he was in over his head from day one and will leave here having produced two of the worst seasons in modern school history in his three years and burying the program in a pit of apathy unseen since 1962 (at least people still had the energy to be pissed at Callahan in his final days).
Yes, he’s a nice guy. Now, let’s find someone who appears to care when things go bad and insists that his players do the same instead wandering the sideline with his arms crossed and head hung.
Mike: Three years ago, Riley was hired in the hope that he could take Nebraska from good to great. It wasn’t a rebuilding process then.
It’s become one now. After three years of recruiting for an archaic, dated offense and a befuddled defense, Nebraska football looks lost. Nebraska has regressed over the last three seasons, and desperately needs fresh leadership. Riley wants his players to take command and lead the program, but hasn’t developed that type of leadership in the program. It’s ridiculous to even suggest that “three years isn’t enough time” when he’s continuously under-performed. Even his alleged “improved recruiting” has resulted in classes that were lower than some of his predecessors’.
It isn’t working. Hiring Riley was a huge mistake; he brought all of the issues he had at Oregon State to Lincoln. It’s time to turn the page.
BSD: The Huskers are 26-point underdogs on Saturday. How do you see the game going for the Cornhuskers?
Jon: I know a couple of Penn State alums pretty well. I know that you’re constantly in this thought process where you’re going to go 6-6 every year, and you might lose every game. You don’t have to worry about this one. Nebraska and Penn State have played some great games over the years… McCloskey’s Corner happened while I was in college at Nebraska. Trust me when I say that our team is done. There isn’t just one fork in our ass. There are 325 forks in our ass, one for every point scored against us this season. MINNESOTA STUCK 54 FORKS IN OUR ASS. What do you think is going to happen? Let’s just go ahead and make it an even 400 forks in our ass after this weekend. Penn State 75, Nebraska 3
Patrick: Penn State has been the one game that I looked forward to the most when we joined the Big Ten. Our two histories together have been legendary. This will not be one of those games. Our guys are fried. I just hope we don’t get too sloppy where penalties start flying and kids start getting hurt for stupid reasons.
Nate: The only chance Nebraska has in this game is if we get an early lead by a return for a touchdown or a defensive touchdown which gives our defense some life. For the first half of the Penn State vs. Northwestern game, the Northwestern defense shut down Penn State for the most part. They didn’t finish the game, but it can be done. If our defense gets to play from ahead, then maybe there is a chance. This is all on the defense.
Riley has been known to pull off at least one win we shouldn’t have any business winning. For example, 2015 against Michigan State.
With that all said, I’ve never seen a Riley team start fast. With the current betting line at Penn State favored by 26, I’d take a loan out at my local bank to put several thousand dollars on Penn State to win by over 30.
Andy: Badly. Very, very badly. And on the road to boot? Take Penn State and the points. You should cover by halftime.
Mike: Nobody cares about this season anymore. The coaches. The players. The fans. It’s name-your-score time. If Minnesota can do it, there’s no reason to doubt that Penn State can thrash Nebraska. Penn State 63, Huskers 14
Thanks again to Jon, Patrick, Nate, Andy, and Mike for helping us out this week! For more Nebraska coverage all season long, be sure to check out Corn Nation!