Among the celebrated history of the Nebraska-Penn State series, Saturday in State College marks, well, the 16th game. This meeting of storied programs arrives without much of the drama that has accompanied prior clashes. The Cornhuskers are Nittany Lions are both unranked and out of contention for The Big Ten title.
Regardless, plenty of pride remains at stake. Let’s talk about it:
Considering the circumstances, what are the mindsets at Nebraska and Penn State as Saturday nears?
Josh Moyer: Believe it or not, even without a postseason, the future is not on the minds of these Nittany Lions. This is the final home game for Penn State's seniors, and there's more on the line Saturday than usual. The Lions can't play for any bowl games because of the sanctions but, in the words of cornerback Jordan Lucas, these final two games are Penn State's bowl games. These seniors have endured more than most in the country -- the death of a longtime coach, a scandal heard 'round the nation, unprecedented sanctions, etc. -- and this is their final opportunity to leave a mark. Expectations this season hovered around eight wins, so a win here -- getting past .500 -- would be huge for Penn State. This game will be an emotional one for PSU, and a win surely means a lot to this team.
Mitch Sherman: The Huskers are a prideful bunch. And despite the many goals that vanished this year earlier than ever in coach Bo Pelini's six seasons, Nebraska shows no signs of playing with less than 100-percent effort. The Penn State name and setting at Beaver Stadium figures to stir some emotions with Huskers who understand the history of these programs. Nebraska is young on both sides of the football after injuries decimated the veteran offensive line. Young players tend stay focused more easily on the future. And once you get past pride and the incentive to again win nine games, the future serves a primary motivational factor for the Huskers.
What do you envision as the role in this game of Penn State's star receiver, Allen Robinson?
JM: He's the Penn State X-factor, as he's being targeted around every third throw. He's accounted for nearly half of the Penn State passing offense this season, and he's one of the top wideouts in school history. For PSU to experience any kind of success through the air, Robinson will need to have a big game. Minnesota had the right idea when it shadowed Robinson with two defenders on nearly every play – Gophers defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said you could count on one hand the number of times Robinson experienced single-coverage -- but, even in that game, Robinson came away with seven of Christian Hackenberg's 14 completions. It's boom-or-bust for Robinson and the passing game.
MS: The Huskers are confident in their ability to cover with cornerbacks Ciante Evans and Stanley Jean-Baptiste, but they'll be hard-pressed to stay with Robinson. Jean-Baptiste is a playmaking NFL prospect, but he's not a lockdown corner on the level of, say, Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard -- or even Evans. Nebraska will mix its coverages in an attempt to confuse Hackenberg. Still, the freshman QB will find a way to get the football to Robinson. But just how much and in what position to gain yards after the catch? The answer figures to loom large in determining a winner.
Nebraska and Penn State feature freshmen quarterbacks. How do you expect them to play?
MS: Tommy Armstrong has shown excellent poise and resilience in his six starts as a replacement for injured senior Taylor Martinez. Armstrong has also displayed a streak of carelessness and a tendency to make mistakes. He threw three interceptions against both Purdue and Northwestern, then committed three more costly turnovers against Michigan State. In between, he led the Huskers on a game-winning drive at Michigan. Look for Nebraska to utilize Armstrong's athleticism against Penn State and rely on a heavy dose of Ameer Abdullah in an attempt to beat the Nittany Lions in the perimeter run game. The less Nebraska can place Armstrong in high-pressure spots, the better.
JM: Unlike Armstrong, Hackenberg has had the luxury of starting since Week 1. He's shrugged off mistakes, led PSU to two comeback wins (Michigan, Illinois) and has progressed every week. Despite his strong arm, he's been most dangerous on short-to-intermediate throws, and he's attempted at least 23 passes every game. Bill O'Brien isn't afraid to air it out but, like Nebraska, we'll likely see quite a bit of Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak in the backfield. Outside of Robinson, Hackenberg doesn't really have a key receiving target, and O'Brien has really been emphasizing the running game lately.
How do you expect the game to unfold?
JM: It's really going to come down to Penn State's hit-or-miss defense. The secondary has struggled, the entire unit is slow, and missed tackles have become a common occurrence. I could see this game following a similar path as the Minnesota contest, in that PSU will aim to stop the run. But even if that works early on -- just as it did against the Gophers -- there's no guarantee PSU will be able to stop a so-so passing attack. A good early indicator to PSU's defense will be how many long runs it allows and just how it fares on third downs. When the defense struggles, those seem to be the places where it really falls apart. That being said, the defense has played poorly all season -- and I think Nebraska has the advantage. I'm calling for the Huskers in a mild upset.
MS: For Nebraska, it's the same story, new chapter. Much like every game since the Huskers visited Minnesota on Oct. 26, the opportunity to win is right there, but Nebraska must limit its turnovers and special teams mistakes. Don't discount the emotion in play for Penn State on Senior Day. These Nittany Lions have endured so much in State College, and they've failed to beat Nebraska in two tries, a reality that ought to stoke the fires additionally for PSU players and fans. Still, Nebraska has the edge in talent and depth. And with a week to replay all the mental errors that spelled doom against Michigan State, look for the Huskers, by comparison, to play a clean game. Pull it off, and I like Nebraska to win a one-score contest.