No one thought that the Nittany Lions would be leading their division at this point in the season, yet here they are, their only loss a 27-11 setback against Alabama. Since then, they've won ugly, by playing darned good defense and holding opponents to under 10 points in six of their games this season.
Penn State's offensive game plan will be relatively simple. Run the ball, run the clock. Sophomore running back Silas Redd has carried the offense, having five consecutive 100-yard games and leading the FBS division in rushing during October. He's scored seven of their 13 rushing touchdowns,
Nebraska entered the season deep on the defensive line, but has had a load of injury issues at defensive tackle. Jared Crick is out for the season. Chase Rome didn't play last week against Northwestern due to a pulled muscle. Thaddeus Randle is out with a knee injury. That leaves Terrence Moore and Baker Steinkuhler to handle most of the workload. Penn State's game plan will force a fair amount of rotation here, which means redshirt freshman Jay Guy and Justin Jackson, who recently moved over from the offensive line, will see a fair amount of plays. Cameron Meredith, normally one of Nebraska's defensive ends, will play inside to make up for depth.
The thin interior doesn't bode well for keeping Penn State off the field. How does Nebraska counter that?
Stack the Box
You won't see the Husker defense standing up against a strong Penn State offensive line. The Huskers defense will need to count on linebacker and safety support against the run. Just like teams do against Nebraska - the Huskers will need to slow down that run game on first down by stacking the box and force the Nittany Lions into third and long, force them to throw the ball, a place where quarterbacks Rob Bolden and Matthew McGloin have struggled this season.
McGloin is the better of the two, but he's ranked only 71st in the NCAA in pass efficiency. Receiver Derek Moye has missed two games this season because of in jury, but still leads the team in receptions and has seven of the team's eight touchdown receptions. He's in the top five in school history in receiving yards and is fourth in touchdown receptions. The secondary will have to guard against the kind of defensive breakdown that let Northwestern get a 81-yard TD reception, but playing man coverage is a chance they'll have to take.
Penn State is tied for sixth nationally in drives of 85 or more yards. If they're successful in sustaining those kinds of drives against Nebraska, simply put, they'll win.
Mix It Up On Offense
Tim Beck won't be able to rely on the ground game this week. Penn State's defensive line is just too good. Instead of pounding Rex Burkhead at the Nittany Lions, expect to see a split with more carries by young backs Aaron Green and Braylon Heard, utilizing speed to get to the edge.
Expect to see judicious use of the option as the Huskers can't afford to have Taylor Martinez hit on too many of those plays. Instead, expect more misdirection and screen plays. The bubble/wide receiver screen is just like a running play to the outside where players like Kenny Bell and Jamal Turner can be effective against the Penn State defensive backs. Brandon Kinnie and Quincy Enunwa will need to be blocking well and make tough catches to keep the chains moving.
Husker fans spent time early in the season complaining about the team's inability to sustain drives. Don't count on them sustaining drives against Penn State either. Count on them winning the game with explosive plays.
The Nittany Lions haven't faced a team with as many playmakers as the Huskers have. Bell's speed and Turner's elusiveness are threats to this defense, while most defensive coordinators may have forgot about Kyler Reed.
Martinez has steadily improved as a quarterback this season and Nebraska will need him to win this game with his arm.
Emotions And A Fast Start
Penn State has a chance to have a great season. They can win their division, win the conference and get to the Rose Bowl. That's reason enough for them to play a tough, four-quarter game.
But you can't talk about this game without talking about the scandal that's rocked Penn State this week. Joe Paterno's firing will only embolden the Nittany Lion team.
The best way to counter an emotional team is to such the life out of them. Get a fast start, something the Huskers didn't do against Northwestern, scoring only three points in the first half. Pop some of those big plays early against the Penn State defense and force them to play from behind where their quarterbacks are more prone to making mistakes. Beck cannot afford to play a conservative game early and let the Husker defensive line get worn down because of repeated three and outs trying to run the ball at a tough defense.
Mistakes like penalties and turnovers are always no-nos. They're more deadly in a game that you expect to be close, which is what most people are expecting from this game.