STATE COLLEGE, Penn. - Nebraska's offensive strength will once again be put to the test against one of the Big Ten's stingiest rushing defenses this afternoon. The Huskers come into the game ranked second in the conference and 13th nationally in rushing offense at 237.7 yards per game, led by junior running back Rex Burkhead, currently the Big Ten's fourth-leading rusher at 105.7 ypg.
On the other side, Penn State has been almost as good as anyone in shutting down opponents' running games. The Nittany Lions have held teams to just 111.9 rushing yards per game so far this season, ranking third in the conference and 24th nationally. Linebacker Gerald Hodges has led the way for PSU's defense with 77 total tackles.
This match-up and potentially even the game will come down to the play of Nebraska's offensive line. After three straight dominant performances, the Huskers were pushed around up front by a Northwestern defense that had been terrible against the run all season. With the Nittany Lions likely to devote the bulk of their attention on defense to containing Burkhead and Co., rushing yards will be tough to come by for sure.
NU Pass Offense vs. PSU Pass Defense
Sophomore quarterback Taylor Martinez has never looked better as a passer than he has in his career over the last three and a half games. He's been much more comfortable in the pocket and he's made smart, safe decisions with the ball that have prevented costly turnovers and kept drives alive. The better he's played, the more defenses have had to account for stopping the Huskers' passing game.
The bad news for Martinez is Penn State has been even better against the pass than it has against the run this season. The Nittany Lions rank third in the Big Ten and seventh nationally in pass defense at 170.4 yards per game, and they also lead the conference and rank third nationally in pass efficiency defense at just 96.34. Their pass rush has also been very effective, as Hodges has a team-high 4.5 sacks and defensive tackle Devon Still is right behind him with four.
Pass protection will be huge for Nebraska in order to let Martinez find his receivers and not have to throw under heavy pressure. He's been very good lately about taking care of the football, but there are few defenses that make passing more difficult than Penn State.
Edge: PENN STATE
PSU Run Offense vs. NU Run Defense
Nebraska's lack of depth on the defensive line was exposed to the fullest in last week's loss to Northwestern. The Wildcats' pedestrian running game rolled through NU's front seven to the tune of 200-plus rushing yards, as the Huskers' simply wore down up front over the course of the game.
Redshirt freshman defensive tackle Chase Rome is expected to be back and will provide some desperately needed depth, but overall Nebraska's defensive line has gone from the unquestioned strength of the defense to a concerning liability after a rash of injuries.
That certainly doesn't bode well against Penn State's power running game. Tailback Silas Redd has already eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark for the season, and his 111.8 yards per game rank second in the Big Ten. With the issues PSU has at quarterback, its offense revolves almost completely around the running game. Expect the Nittany Lions to come right at Nebraska's banged up front four today.
Edge: PENN STATE
PSU Pass Offense vs. NU Pass Defense
The quarterback position was already a huge question mark for Penn State coming into the season, and even through nine games things still aren't quite comfortable at the position. Matt McGloin eventually beat out Rob Bolden for the starting job, but both have played significant snaps.
No matter which quarterback has been under center, the Nittany Lions have been well below average throwing the football. With just 194.2 yards per game and eight total passing touchdowns to seven interceptions, PSU ranks 88th nationally in pass offense. McGloin essentially won the job because he was the better passer, but he's completed just 55 percent of his passes with seven touchdowns and three interceptions.
Nebraska's secondary has gotten much better from where it was early in the season, but like everything else took a step back last week. Penn State hardly presents the challenge in the passing game that Northwestern did, so look for NU's defensive backs to look a little more like they did against Michigan State today.
Special Teams, What If's and The X-Factor
Junior Brett Maher continues to be everything Nebraska could have hoped for this season. Maher is now 15-of-18 on the season with all three misses from 50 yards or beyond, and he's also perfect on 36 extra-point tries. He's is tied for fifth nationally in field goals per game at 1.67 per contest and his 9.0 points per game places him 21st nationally.
Freshman return man Ameer Abdullah has slowed down just a bit from his All-American pace, goning from leading the nation in kickoff returns to a still very impressive fourth nationally at 27.1 yards per return.
As good as Nebraska's special teams have been, Penn State has been solid in the kicking and return games as well. The Nittany Lions rank just behind NU in kickoff returns with an average of 24.7 ypr, good for 20th nationally. PSU kicker/punter Anthony Fera has connected on 12-of-14 field goals and averaged 42.1 yards per punt. Still, once again, Nebraska wins the special teams battle here on paper.
Nebraska Will Win If:
It can run the ball and stop the run, plain and simple. The Huskers would also be well served to hit the ground running from the opening kickoff, as taking the fire out of the 110,000 fans in Beaver Stadium right away would set the tone for the rest of the day.
Penn State Will Win If:
It can muster up enough focus amid all the distractions from the past week and play the physical, smash mouth football that got the Nittany Lions to 8-1 this season. Penn State will definitely want to control the football and the tempo of the game and shorten the clock as much as possible.
This one couldn't be more obvious. What will determine the outcome of this game will be how Penn State's players handle the emotion that will be running higher than ever before in program history. On one hand, the Nittany Lions could play the most inspired football yet in honor of fired legendary coach Joe Paterno. On the other hand, they could be so emotionally drained from the devastating events of the past week that they won't be able to put up a fight. More than ever, this game will come down to focus and emotion on both sidelines.