Monday, November 5, 2012

Another Big Game for Penn State: Nebraska presents biggest test of the season

After botching the Ohio State game two weeks ago, the road warrior Lions head to Nebraska this week for another Big Game, where PSU hopes to complete a perfect Big Ten road schedule and score its first Big Game win of the Bill O'Brien era.

All the Penn State defense has to do this week is contain the conference's most potent offense while playing in arguably the most rabid atmosphere in the Big Ten halfway across the country vs. the league's second-best team in PSU's second straight road game.

Simply put, it's the biggest challenge the Lions will face this season, at least as big as Ohio State was, considering the home-field scenario and likely absence of injured NT Jordan Hill.

Many wondered, after the Oct. 27 loss to Ohio State, if sanction-saddled PSU might play another Big Game anytime in the next few years.

Well, here it is. And it only took two weeks.

It meets the Big Game criteria. 

Penn State (6-3, 4-1) has won 6 of 7.

Nebraska (7-2, 4-1) has won 6 of 7, including wins over Wisconsin, Northwestern, Michigan and Michigan State.

The 'Huskers are ranked No. 16 in the BCS standings and in first place in the Legends Division.

The Lions still very much have a shot at winning the Leaders Division, or being co-champs, with unbeaten Ohio State still having to play at Wisconsin and vs. Michigan.

How well is Nebraska's offense humming? Last week the 'Huskers gained 473 yards in East Lansing against the league's No. 1 defense, Michigan State, in rallying to overcome a 10-point 4th quarter deficit and beat Michigan State, 28-24.

The Spartans have the league's No. 1 scoring defense and total (yardage) defense, and had a 10-point lead at home. And they couldn't stop the 'Huskers assault.

Nebraska leads the Big Ten by far with an average of 487 yards a game, also leads with 270 rushing yards a game, and is second to Ohio State in points at 38 per game.

Just like against OSU and Braxton Miller, an explosive running QB - this time quicksilver junior Taylor Martinez - will give PSU defensive coordinator Ted Roof migraines this week.

Against Michigan State, Martinez dashed for whopping 205 yards. Sheesh - the Spartans were yielding a league-low 81 rushing yards a game coming in.

So this is a Big Game and it is a very big challenge.

The Lions mucked up the first Big Game of the Bill O'Brien era vs. Ohio State, playing below their standards, missing opportunities and bowing to the Buckeyes, 35-23.

PSU should have learned from that, and should be unfazed on the road, as the Lions have dismantled all three Big Ten road foes this season, the non-Murderder's Row of Illinois (35-7), Iowa (38-14) and Purdue (34-9).

Underwhelming opponents, yes. But all three were over before the 4th quarter. They were clinical beatdowns.

Among the many impressive things on O'Brien's early PSU resume has been the preparation and focus PSU has displayed from the get-go on the road.

Against Nebraska's devastating offense, the Lions' D likely will employ the same or a very similar approach as they did vs. OSU and Miller. It worked fabulously the first 28 minutes, failed badly the last 32.

Stifle the run and try to make Nebraska one-dimensional. Force Martinez, an awkward but much-improved passer, to throw. But that could be problematic, too.

How improved is Martinez, who has been much maligned as a passer in the past? He has a higher completion percentage (62.9 to 62.1) and as many TD passes (18) as PSU's Matt McGloin this season, and a higher passer rating (147.1 to 137.9)

And, Martinez was crisp at PSU last season, leading the 'Huskers to the 17-14 win at Beaver Stadium in the surreal immediate aftermath of the Sandusky scandal.

Martinez has a very good receiving corp, too - the best group at Nebraska in memory - led by big-play Kenny Bell (33 rec, 622 yds, 18.8 avg, 6 TD).

So then, how has this mighty Nebraska team lost - twice - at UCLA and at Ohio State?

Turnovers and rush defense deficiencies. And that's where PSU can get the upper hand.

The Lions of course will do everything possible to try to limit Nebraska's scoring drives and hold the 'Huskers under 30 points. But what PSU defense also needs to do is generate turnovers. Martinez tossed three interceptions last week.

And, critically, the defense also will need a hand from the offense. Specifically the ground game.

Penn State's rushing attack has received virtually no attention and praise this season. Saturday, it can lift the Lions to victory in Lincoln.

Nebraska is in the bottom half of the league in all rush defense stats: 10th in the Big Ten in rushing yards allowed (183 a game), 9th in yards per carry allowed (4.4) and 8th in TDs rushing allowed (13).

There it is: The weakness for Penn State to exploit.

Michigan State 244-pound bruiser Le'Veon Bell ran for 188 yards and 2 TDs on 36 carries vs. Nebraska.

Seen any big bruisers carrying the ball for Penn State lately? Expect another heavy dose of emerging 230-pound star Zach Zwinak for PSU this week. The sophomore, who scarcely touched the field the first three games, notched his third 100-yard game of the season in the rout at Purdue.

If Zwinak can pound away at the 'Huskers 25-plus times, advantage PSU.

Meanwhile, the 'Huskers are No. 1 in the conference in pass efficiency defense. So clearly this matchup favors more running, less passing, for PSU.

Of course, O'Brien is aware of all of this. It's clear the PSU ground game can play an essential role in leading the Lions to victory. It should be the best means of moving the chains and controlling the clock, which will make it the PSU defense's best friend.

Penn State is 7-point underdog, its biggest deficit this season.

But if the Lions can limit the damage from Martinez and Co., just like they did for half of the game against OSU and Miller, and then get a big boost from the ground game - which didn't happen vs. the Buckeyes - the Lions should be right there the whole way.

And this Big Game possibly could end up in underdog Penn State's win column.

Follow Pete Young on Twitter @AllPSUfootball

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