Penn State at No. 16 Nebraska (BCS rankings)
Saturday, 3:30 p.m., ABC, ESPN 2
Line: Nebraska -7.5
Nebraska looks to carry the Big Ten banner proudly in their second season in the conference as the postseason looms. The Huskers are the highest ranked team in the BCS standings (thanks to Ohio State's ineligibility), and look to keep the momentum going this week when Penn State comes to Lincoln, Nebraska for a Big Ten crossover match-up. Can Bill O'Brien and Penn State put together a game plan that can give them what would be a signature win for the new regime early on, or will Taylor Martinez and Nebraska's running game prove too much for Penn State's defense for a second straight season?
For Penn State to Win: Part of Penn State's success this season has come from starting fast on offense. The Nittany Lions have outscored their opponents in the first quarter by a combined 76-3, and getting off on the right foot against Nebraska is a must if Penn State wants to get out of Lincoln with a win. Forcing Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez to beat their defense through the air may not be the key it once was, but it must still be the goal for Penn State's defense. Against Ohio State it was clear Penn State's defense was getting worn down with the Buckeyes running the football, with Braxton Miller doing his own share of the damage. Penn State needs to avoid a repeat of that type of game on the road this week.
For Nebraska to Win: Run, run, run. Rex Burkhead may be unavailable, or limited, but the Nebraska running game should still be the key to a victory. Penn State's defense is good and their endurance is better than it used to be, but it is far from unbeatable. Penn State at times has struggled to get off the field on third down (opponents converting 38.6% of third down attempts, up four points from last season), and if Nebraska can get Ameer Abdullah to set the tone in the running game and get enough production from Taylor Martinez on the ground and on short-yardage situations, Nebraska can control the clock and keep Penn State's defense chasing.
Key Player, Penn State: Saying Matt McGloin is the most important player this weekend is a bit easy. He has a tendency to perform well against lesser opponents and could benefit from putting together a solid game against a reputable defense this weekend. You also are probably well aware of defensive leaders Michael Mauti, Gerald Hodges and Jordan Hill. But it is time to focus on a rising star on Penn State's offense, sophomore wide receiver Allen Robinson. Robinson is second in the Big Ten in receiving, with 689 yards and he leads the conference with eight touchdown receptions. He has become Penn State's go-to receiver this season but has just one 100-yard receiving game.
Key Player, Nebraska: Like above, it is incredibly easy to suggest Taylor Martinez or Ameer Abdullah are going to be the key players in this game. That almost goes without saying. So we focus on the defensive side of the football here. If Nebraska needs to put the pressure on Matt McGloin and force him to feel uncomfortable in the pocket and move around, then look for defensive lineman Eric Martin. Martin has 9.5 tackles for a loss this season and 6.5 sacks, tied for second in the Big Ten. Martin plays better at home as well, with 4.5 sacks coming in home games (five home games so far).
Key Stat: Penn State and Nebraska have not been the most well-disciplined teams this season, but they have been some of the most improved teams when it comes to penalties this season compared to last season. Nebraska has cut down on penalties per game from 8.3 penalties per game last season to 6.6 per game this season. Penn State has gone from 8.0 penalties per game last season to just 5.4 penalties per game this season so far. The only schools with a better improvement in penalties per game averages from 2011 through this point in the 2012 season are Memphis (9.0 ppg to 7.2ppg) and Arizona (12.3 ppg to 8.4 ppg), but both still average more penalties per game than Penn State.