Game Day: Nebraska vs. Penn State

Times are changing

When Penn State hosts Nebraska Saturday at Beaver Stadium, it’ll be a tilt between two of the winningest programs in major college football history. The Huskers (893 wins) sit at No. 5. Penn State (875) sits at No. 8. These are the football tycoons with pigskin estates. The programs, similar in their insularity and love of tradition, couldn’t be further apart at this moment.

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2-Minute Drill by Sam McKewon

Nebraska rush offense vs. Penn State rush defense

Aside from a game at Ohio State, Penn State’s rush defense has been downright stingy in Big Ten play, holding Iowa, Northwestern and Michigan State to fewer than 100 yards on the ground. Linebackers Jason Cabinda and Koa Farmer comprise the backbone of the defense; all three are aggressive pursuers and sound hitters. Nebraska’s run game, meanwhile, is as bad as it’s been in years, in part because the Huskers abandon it once they get behind. NU should get Jaylin Bradley back in the mix.

Nebraska pass offense vs. Penn State pass defense

Tanner Lee cleared concussion protocol and will start Saturday, coach Mike Riley said Friday night. Nebraska has a better chance with Lee, but Penn State’s pass defense — despite allowing big games to Ohio State and Michigan State — will be tough when you factor in the weather. Wideouts JD Spielman, Stanley Morgan and De’Mornay Pierson-El must be on point with their routes.

Penn State rush offense vs. Nebraska rush defense

The Nittany Lions have had offensive line issues since the arrival of coach James Franklin. That remains true in 2017, when PSU has a star back — Saquon Barkley — who's been held to fewer than 100 yards five times in Big Ten play. That’s not on Barkley — a dynamic runner at the second level. It's on the offensive line. But Nebraska’s defense has a way of making opposing run games look quite healthy, so there’s no particular reason to think that’ll change. Barkley is a surefire entrant into next year’s NFL draft so he’s playing his last home game. Expect a show.

Penn State pass offense vs. Nebraska pass defense

Penn State’s spread offense has the playmaking quarterback (Trace McSorley), the tight end (Mike Gesicki) and the big receivers (DaeSean Hamilton and Juwan Johnson) that Nebraska would love to have, but doesn’t. Put Barkley in the mix — 40 catches, 524 yards — and Nebraska’s pass defense, which defensive coordinator Bob Diaco vigorously tries to protect, won’t have much of a chance unless the weather intervenes. Like Ohio State, Penn State should handily carve up the Huskers. It’s going to be painful.

Special teams

Barkley has returned two kickoffs for touchdowns this season, and Nebraska just allowed a kickoff for a touchdown against Minnesota. Punt returner DeAndre Thompkins has also returned a punt for a score, and PSU’s kick and punt coverage teams are both better than Nebraska’s. The Huskers have returned a single punt in the last four games. Penn State’s kicker, Tyler Davis, has missed 7 of his 15 field goal attempts, but he is the Nittany Lions’ lone liability.

Intangibles

Penn State hasn’t lost at home since 2015, and Nebraska is playing the second of two straight conference road games, a scenario that almost always works against the travelling team. Penn State, for example, was upset at Michigan State in its second straight road game, while PSU pummeled Michigan 42-13 when the Wolverines were playing their second-straight road game. Given that it’s Barkley’s senior day, you’ll see quite the fan support just for him.

Key matchup: Nebraska’s pass offense vs. Penn State’s secondary

We expect Nebraska to give up yards and points to Penn State, so the only way we anticipate Nebraska keeping the game competitive is by scoring points and converting third downs through the air. That’s a tough task on the road, with no momentum as a program and Mike Riley’s tenure on the ropes.

Our take

Nebraska is less likely to win this game than perhaps any other since joining the Big Ten. Nothing points to the Huskers winning. Not the giant point spread north of three touchdowns, not Nebraska’s disheveled defense, not the back-to-back road games, not Penn State’s penchant for sacking the quarterback. The question for NU won’t be if it loses, but how bad it does, and how many Husker fans turn off the game halfway because it’s too tough to watch. Our guess is it happens somewhere in the second half.

Our prediction: PENN STATE 42, NEBRASKA 17

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Game notes

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