Welcome to your Friday morning, fellow Husker fans.
As we have done all season long, we know that you want to know about Nebraska's weekly opponent, and this week of course it's the Penn St. Nittany Lions. We hear the game is at 2:30 central and should be on the ABC/ESPN2 mirror, so you should watch.
Anyhow, we wanted some answers to questions you may have. And for that, we thank Devon Edwards, assistant editor at Black Shoe Diaries, the SBNation community for Penn State.
I asked Devon about things like what the preseason expectations were for this team, Matt McGloin, the defense that has kept on keeping on, and what the future holds for this program after this year.
1. At 6 and 3, people seem very surprised by the way Penn St. has played this year under Bill O’Brien’s first year. Are you surprised at all, or was this semi expected?
It's hard to really say whether the 6-3 record has lived up to expectations because of how they've shifted so much over the past few months. Before the sanctions, and the transfers, I'd say most Penn State fans would expect somewhere around a 9 to 10-win season. After Silas Redd and others left, that was probably downgraded to 6 or 7. And after the Ohio and UVA losses, plenty expected this to be a losing season. But since then, Penn State's played significantly better while the rest of the conference has looked much worse. If nothing else, this has given us a whole lot of confidence in Bill O'Brien's ability, moving forward, to get the most out of players who weren't the most highly touted, something that's going to be a pretty big deal with our scholarship reductions.
2. The offense has exploded it seems under Matt McGloin’s leadership. Talk about where he’s come from the previous coaching staff to now under O’Brien.
The biggest problem with the Jay Paterno/Galen Hall offense was the stunning lack of communication, both between the coaches and players, and even amongst the coaches. We'd have to burn at least 3 or 4 timeouts every game just because they couldn't get the play call in, and it's hard to argue that on the practice field, that the players (especially the quarterbacks) were getting the coaching they needed. McGloin was a shot in the arm of an offense that struggled under Rob Bolden in 2010, but wasn't much better in 2011, and in both years, he was just awful in big games. Even though he was the returning starter, and a senior, it seemed like O'Brien was still eager to find someone--anyone--else through most of the spring. But he's taken huge steps forward this season, and it's not only because of the confidence of knowing he's the starter, and the free reign of a more wide-open system (that even allows him to call audibles at the line of scrimmage!). Part of it is that he's working with someone who, now, deserves a whole lot of credit as a developed of quarterbacks--McGloin's progression through his reads and pocket presence is so vastly improved--and Penn State fans are salivating at the idea of O'Brien getting to work with 5-star blue-chip prospects like Christian Hackenberg instead of walk-on retreads like McGloin
3. Rushing wise, Zack Zwinak and Michael Zordich have tried to carry the flag on this, but it hasn’t seemed to work well. Is there a specific reason for this?
I don't really agree with that assertion. Yes, the run game struggled mightily against Ohio State, but in the other Big Ten games, Penn State's absolutely been able to establish the run game. In three of those games, Zwinak ran for 100+ yards, and in the other, Bill Belton hit the century mark. It's kind of an odd thunder-and-lightning dynamic, since Belton is prone to disappear for quarters at a time, but Zwinak, especially, is very good at hitting the hole quickly and
falling forward for extra yards--he's a converted fullback, and has that kind of mindset, to run through people. Zordich, an actual fullback, has the same approach, but with less frequency and to lesser effect. Belton's lost playing time because, apparently, of poor practices, but he's the home-run threat Penn State wants to get in the open field. Make no mistake, Penn State's more of a passing team, but they're hardly one dimensional.
4. This defense has gotten way better under Ted Roof (every Auburn fan just lost it). Michael Mauti is the leader, but what’s been the big thing for this unit?
Again, it's hard to argue that this defense has improved under Ted Roof, considering just how good it was last year. Then again, after losing all four starters in the secondary to graduation, then a couple more to dismissals and transfers, and after how bad it was in the first couple games, Roof does deserve a lot of credit for getting it off the ground in 2012. He struggled to know his personnel early on, and pushed all the wrong buttons, but since then, he's basically just enabled his playmakers to do what they do best. Gerald Hodges will likely be spying Taylor Martinez for most of the afternoon, and while Mauti gets most of the press and credit (and rightfully so, because
he's awesome), Hodges is just as important as the weak-side linebacker. Up front, Penn State is likely without all-conference caliber defensive Jordan Hill, but the defensive ends have played real well since the return of Pete Massaro. They'll get some pressure on Taylor Martinez, that's for sure. The only real weaknesses are in the downfield passing game, mainly because Penn State doesn't even have the personnel to go nickel.
5. A lot of people think that after this year, the scholarship limits are going to take their toll hard. Is the fanbase just enjoying this year, knowing the next 3 could be very rough?
Honestly, I think Penn State's somewhere in the high 60s for scholarships this year, so there's really not much of a dropoff after this season, at least in terms of the depth and size of the roster, especially considering how many of the key pieces are younger kids. Before the success of this season, we were much more apprehensive, but seeing what O'Brien's been able to do with less heralded players and a thin roster have given us the knowledge that we'll be, at the worst, still way ahead of the Big Ten's bottom feeders like Purdue and Illinois. Plus, there's a lot of excitement around some of the more higher-profile recruits who've decided to stick around through the worst of it, and the kids O'Brien's been able to bring in despite the sanctions, so while I doubt we'll be winning 10 games any time soon, 7 or 8 is a very valid expectation, even in the worst of it.
6. We’ve talked about the RB’s, McGloin, and Mauti. Tell us who else to watch on both sides of the ball and on special teams Saturday afternoon.
If he can go, TE Kyle Carter might be the most important player in the Penn State offense. One of four tight ends who will probably catch a pass, Carter's the best matchup nightmare of any, and he's probably got the best hands on the team--but he's battling a leg injury that forced him out of the Purdue game. If he can't go, expect to hear Jesse James' name quite a bit--he's a bigger tight end, a true freshman, who's caught a touchdown pass in two of the past three games. And of course, Allen Robinson has been one of the best receivers in the Big Ten. He struggles with drops, but runs pretty fantastic routes and gets open down the field. Defensively, watch out for Adrian Amos, who moves between cornerback and safety, is a great hitter coming up to the line, and will probably come on a couple blitzes, as well as defensive end Deion Barnes, a redshirt freshman who looks like he could be the next Larry Johnson breakout star.
7. Prediction time. Give us your take on how you see the game playing out and your prediction for a winner.
I can't ever pick against Penn State, even though if Nebraska comes to play, it'll be tough to stop them. Where Penn State has really excelled is in taking care of the ball, and in its hot starts, and I think that will continue this week. If the Nittany Lion D can force multiple turnovers, I think the Nittany Lions win, if not, it'll be tough. I'll say Martinez makes a couple mistakes, and the Lions' offense avoid another quarter-long rut. Penn State 27, Nebraska 20.