In this game a year ago at Beaver Stadium, the Penn State football community and the nation was in awe as an off-field scandal clouded what was, at the time, a matchup of two excellent football teams.
This time around, it’s all about the matchup on the field. The Penn State Nittany Lions (6-3, 4-1 Big Ten), winners of six of their last seven games, travel to Lincoln to take on the No. 16 Nebraska Cornhuskers (7-2, 4-1 Big Ten), fresh off a thrilling last-minute victory at Michigan State, on Saturday afternoon.
Life has been interesting to say the least for Penn State in the past year, but the Lions have risen up and overcome outside distractions to become a good football team on the field.
Last November legendary Penn State coach Joe Paterno had been fired earlier in the week, and the Jerry Sandusky sex scandal was only beginning when the Lions hosted the Cornhuskers. Now, just a year later, Paterno is gone, Sandusky is in jail, and the Nittany Lions have started a new era under coach Bill O’Brien and are turning the pages of the past to an ever-promising future. That future has been given a kickstart by senior quarterback Matt McGloin, who has guided O’Brien’s offense with efficiency and effectiveness to make the Lions one of the best units in the Big Ten. On the flip side, the Nebraska offense hasn’t been too shabby either, averaging close to 500 total yards per game in addition to 38 points per game. Led by junior quarterback Taylor Martinez, the Huskers have won three-straight since losing at Ohio State in early October. The run has positioned the Huskers with an opportunity to clinch their first Big Ten Legends Division title and subsequent berth in the Big Ten Championship game if they win out their remaining games.
Standing in the way of that is Penn State’s stout defense that is allowing just 17.1 points per game this season and has been tough against the run all year. They’ll need to be again this weekend when they meet the nation’s sixth best rushing attack at 269 yards per game for the Huskers. Making duties even tougher for the Penn State defense already having to deal with the dual-threat Martinez is that the Huskers may get starting tailback Rex Burkhead back this week after missing two weeks with nagging injuries. Burkhead thrashed the Lions for 121 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries a year ago. Even if Burkhead can’t go again for coach Bo Pellini, the Huskers’ leading rusher, Ameer Abdullah, has racked up more than 825 yards and eight touchdowns on the season and should provide a challenge for the Penn State defense in addition to Martinez.
In addition to the hard-nosed Nittany Lion defense, the team has carved out an efficient offense under O’Brien’s guidance that has hit its stride in Big Ten play lately, averaging 439.2 total yards in Big Ten play this season. They racked up more than 500 total yards in a 34-9 win at Purdue last Saturday. The offense starts with McGloin, who has helped the Lions outscore opponents 76-3 in the first quarter and 137-33 in the first half. When McGloin is on his game, the Lions are potent through the air even without a normally powerful Penn State rushing attack. The senior isn’t shy about finding his favorite target, receiver Allen Robinson, downfield or underneath to his stable of capable pass catching tight ends. And when that hasn’t worked, McGloin can do it himself with his legs, leading the team with five rushing touchdowns.
Players to watch:
Taylor Martinez, QB, Nebraska. The junior makes the offense go for the Huskers. When Martinez is on his game he’s one of the very best dual-threats from the position in the country, maybe the best. Given Penn State’s overall inconsistency when facing dual-threat quarterbacks in the past, including this season, Martinez could be in for a big day behind a massive offensive line. Look for a couple big plays from him in the passing game as well, the Lions will most likely do a good job against the run, but leave some plays open downfield for Martinez and try and have him beat them that way rather than letting him run all over them.
Matt McGloin, QB, Penn State. If Penn State’s defense is overmatched like it was against Nebraska last season, McGloin and Penn State’s offense is better equipped to get in a shootout this time around. He has playmakers at skill positions all over the field and will definitely find some holes in a Huskers defense giving up close to 30 points per game this season. If his defense can get some early stops and contain Martinez, McGloin could have the Lions up late and bidding for the road upset.
Matchup to watch:
Penn State’s defense vs. Nebraska’s rushing attack. It’s the obvious matchup on the field, but it’s the one that will decide the game. Simply put, if Nebraska can run the ball on Penn State’s defense with some success, they’ll control the clock and keep the ball away from McGloin and score points in the process. If they can’t, and Penn State’s defense can hang tough, McGloin will put the Lions in position to score against an average Nebraska defense and make life interesting for the Huskers late in a game yet again.