Previewing the Nebraska-Penn State game might be one of the most challenging assignments of the season. With the horrific child abuse story unfolding around the Penn State football program, it's hard to focus a lot of energy and passion on a football game being played amidst the chaos.
And yet the game will be played, as well it should. So whether the game on Saturday will be a distraction from a traumatic story or a respite from a difficult world, college football fans should not feel guilty for enjoying a few hours of a classic rivalry being renewed. Rest assured, the horrors will still be there once the game is over.
So, once we can actually get to the game, let's take a look at what would be good signs and bad signs for Nebraska.
As a Nebraska fan, would you be excited about a quarterback with a 68 percent completion percentage and a 2-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio? Would you think that all the worrying you’ve done over the last season-and-a-half would finally be over and that NU had someone reliable as a signal-caller?
Well, guess what. Those statistics are for one Taylor Martinez, in the four games he’s played since Wisconsin.
There’s been lots of other shiny objects that have captivated fans’ attention in the interim, but all the while Martinez has quietly been putting together a nice run of form. If Penn State’s stingy run defense holds up against Nebraska, that new-found effectiveness might be put to the test.
One big worry about Nebraska matching up with Northwestern is how Nebraska would handle another mobile quarterback. While much of the damage came between the tackles, it was clear that part of Nebraska’s issues with the Wildcats was dealing with the threat of a quarterback run.
In 2011, Penn State’s quarterback, Matt McGloin, has 20 carries. For negative 22 yards.
The Nittany Lions pose an offensive attack much more akin to Michigan State than to Northwestern. Nebraska fans are hoping that the results are similar, as well.
Sputtering offense versus struggling defense on one side of the ball, and outstanding defense versus (at times) effective offense on the other.
That matchup, which is Nebraska versus Penn State in a microcosm, suggests a low-scoring affair is likely. If that’s the case, points will be at a premium, and the importance of the placekicker will be heightened.
If that is the key matchup, Nebraska fans should be happy. Brett Maher is 15-for-18 on field goals, while Penn State’s kickers are a combined 14-for-21.
Of all the shocking things about Nebraska’s loss to Northwestern, perhaps the most shocking was how effectively the Wildcats ran the ball right at Nebraska. The injuries to Jared Crick and Chase Rome have left NU’s defensive tackle position dangerously thin, and the Wildcats were able to exploit that weakness with great success.
Penn State doesn’t do a lot well offensively, but one thing it does well is run the ball right at an opponent. Silas Redd has already eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark for the season, and had to be excited at his prospects watching the Nebraska-Northwestern tape. If the Nittany Lions get Redd going, it could make Nebraska’s trip to Happy Valley a difficult one.
Week after week, Nebraska fans marveled at Rex Burkhead’s production and wondered why he didn’t get the ball more often. Burkhead already has 187 carries and was surprisingly unproductive against a previously porous Northwestern rushing defense.
All kinds of reasons (because calling them “excuses” could be considered pejorative) were offered, from the team being flat in a trap game to the offensive line playing poorly. But what if Nebraska has leaned on Burkhead too hard already?
If Nebraska can’t count on Superman’s performances, then the focus will fall on either Taylor Martinez or the bevy of freshman offensive talent Nebraska possesses. Neither sounds as reassuring as handing the ball to a healthy Burkhead and letting him work.
I wanted very much to just look at the matchups between Nebraska and Penn State, without addressing the underlying scandal that shocked the college football world and claimed the career of Joe Paterno. But it’s impossible to ignore the emotional and psychological toll the events of the last few days could have on both teams.
Conventional wisdom suggests that Penn State will suffer the most from all the turmoil, with their head coach ousted just days before the biggest game of their season. But it is not hard to see a scenario where the team feels that Paterno was treated unfairly and bands together to win the game on his behalf.
That scenario might not be the most likely, but is it not an implausible one. And if that happens, Nebraska could be walking into a hornet’s nest.
If you just look at the matchup between the two teams, it would seem that Nebraska would have an advantage.
Nebraska’s defense—the performance against Northwestern notwithstanding—should be more than enough to handle Penn State’s meager offense. Nebraska’s running game—if Tim Beck is patient enough to stick with it—should be enough to keep the chains moving and provide Nebraska with an advantage. And Nebraska’s edge in special teams should serve as a tiebreaker if the game becomes close.
However, in the week leading up to the game, the number of variables that have been introduced make the game much harder to handicap. Even before the Paterno scandal exploded, a huge question was raised about how Nebraska would respond to their surprising loss to Northwestern. And a road game to Happy Valley is always a challenge.
Still, it’s hard to imagine the Nittany Lions not being hindered emotionally by the firing of their iconic coach. It’s not hard to imagine Penn State coming out of the gate breathing fire, but it’s also not hard to see that emotional wave cresting and the Lions crashing as the game wears on.
Unless Penn State is able to get up big on Nebraska—which is hard to see without Nebraska turning the ball over—Nebraska’s advantages on both sides of the ball should be enough to give Nebraska a hard-earned road victory.
Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 16, Penn State 13
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