Last year Penn State had Larry Johnson. This year they don't. Last year, Penn State returned almost an entire offensive line full of starters. This year, they brought back one. None of the interior defensive players are returning starters and the secondary is pretty fresh as well. Put all that together and the expectations in Happy Valley are low and the anticipation of an upset in this game in Lincoln are right around the same area.
Penn State just isn't that good.
Nebraska though, they brought back a ton on defense, 9 starters actually. And though this is basically the same defense that was throttled by PSU in the second half last year, I think by now everyone knows that this isn't last year's defense.
Bo Pelini right now is considered a miracle worker as he has taken basically the same personnel that was all but porous on the defensive side last year and have them leading the Big XII in most major defensive categories thus far. It's amazing what coaching can do.
The conditioning is another huge factor as Brian Bailey has been an equally revered maker of miracles as he has turned a poorly conditioned team into a Nebraska-like powerhouse in the second half, only getting stronger as the game progresses.
Is that enough to beat Penn State?
Let's face one fact. On paper, this isn't even a game. Even with Nebraska's self-destructing offense, the likes of Zach Mills and the extremely-gifted Michael Robinson, what you have is an offense for the Nittany Lions that is simply below average. And the defense, though it sports an expectedly good linebacking core, you have a defense that as an entire unit isn't what Penn State fans are used to.
So, Nebraska should romp, shouldn't they?
As the uniquely expressive, Lee Corso would say, ‘not so fast' in that if this were just any other team, yeah, it probably would be a romp. It's not though. This is Penn State and it just happens to be a team that whupped NU but good last year, bringing reality to Nebraska as to what their season would really be like with a 40-7 pasting that in all actuality, wasn't even that close, at least not in the second half.
Penn State ran roughshod over NU in the second half, NU looking like a defeated team on either side of the ball. From a quickly self-destructing offense to an ill-prepared defense, NU's version of the blackshirts in that game were huffing and puffing, but that's because they were just too out of shape to do anything else.
A loss like that sits with a person and with a player like Jammal Lord who's only real weakness is that he has confidence issues, well a game that saw him get his confidence all but destroyed, this game's impact shouldn't be understated.
In all actuality, if Jammal Lord never sat in the pocket once for this game, it would probably be best for NU, because even Lord admits himself that when he has time to sit there and think about the throw and it's actually an easy throw, that's when he's most likely going to miss.
It makes more sense than you think, most great athletes better when they are running simply on instinct. It's when you have to think when plays are calculated in seconds, that's when you have problems.
Here's the bottom line for this game as I see it:
NU has to find a way not to kill itself in the Red Zone. It shouldn't be asking much to avoid penalties, but it's something that NU hasn't managed to do up to this point. If Nebraska doesn't beat themselves, they won't get beat at all.
Contain Michael Robinson. He's their home-run threat by far. Zach Mills is a very good and savvy QB, but Robinson is their big play guy without question. Nebraska all but shut down Oklahoma State's biggest play-maker, Rashaun Woods and in such a manner I personally didn't think was possible. If they can do that to Michael Robinson, Penn State won't just lose, they'll lose big.
Sustain Drives. NU has managed to chew up the clock to no end through their first two games of the year. They haven't managed to get many points out of it, but holding onto the ball and keeping the other guy's defense on the field that long has a dramatic affect. If NU can do that, the already inexperienced and not overly deep Penn State defense is going to wear down and wear down fast. And it will then indeed be fans watching 3 and 4 yard gains on the ground turn into 7 and 8 yards.
The Big Play. Nebraska has managed about one big play per game this year. That's not good. For this game today and future games, NU has to establish at least to themselves that they can get the big play on defenses that aren't considered amongst the elite. NU faces some defenses that will be considered amongst the best in the future, Souther Miss. probably being the biggest test up-coming. In this game, the Big Red need to prove to themselves that they can put the ball down the field in 20 or 30-yard increments or when a major defensive power comes calling, it's going to be all up-hill.
Discipline. This follows the same line as the penalties, but while it seems I am sorely underestimating the Lions, NU can't afford to do that. Even I'm not, but the Huskers have to approach this game as if Penn State is the best team they will face all year. No, it's not so NU can do to them what PSU did to NU last year, but to show that whatever psychological impact last year's game had is all but gone. You do that by going at them with a vengeance even if revenge isn't your motive.
Last but certainly not least, the blood is already in the water, a trickle if not a deluge started from the point where Penn State lost to Boston College. Penn State couldn't protect their QB and though the Nittany Lions looked pretty good after the first-quarter snowball, this isn't your granddaddy's Penn State team. Teams that have any aspirations for not just bowl-appearances, but conference titles and even beyond, where there's blood, there's opportunity to draw even more blood. Though Penn State fans would growl if NU were to get a lead and then just pour it on, NU should pour it on as much as possible, if only to prove to themselves they can.
The game isn't played on paper and for Nittany Lion fans, that's good. Penn State has as much chance to win this game as they have to lose, believe it or not. NU still has a ton of question marks that haven't been answered up to this point. For so many reasons, more psychological than anything, what NU does in this game could indicate to many out there what they have the potential of doing the rest of this year.
You never want to put too much stock into what any one game can do for or against your team. It's simply stupid to put all your eggs in one basket like that. However, as far as I am concerned, the significance of this game goes far beyond just what one win or loss will do for either team.
For Penn State, it will be a major lift, most of their fan base convinced that they are in for a long and depressing year. For Nebraska though, it's a way for those that were part of this team last year to erase in their minds what happened the previous season and for the new guys to get a victory over a great name if not a great team.
When Nebraska beat Notre Dame two years in a row not so very long ago, they didn't beat what you would consider true Notre Dame teams. They were good to an extent, but you know what, it didn't matter. It was Notre Dame. Another notch in the belt over a great tradition if not a great team and sometimes, that in and of itself is a major victory.
With this game, it's pretty much the same thing. Penn State vs. Nebraska. If you didn't know the records, haven't seen any stats or know that much about who was playing for who, the title of the marquee is enough to draw people in because it's still a huge game.
Penn State will be ready to play. A Joe Pa coached team always is. Nebraska will be hungry. After a season like last year, there's only two things a team can be, hungry or dead and I think you've seen that NU is a good illustration of the former, not the latter, this year.
And, after it's all said and done, if NU does win and substantially, the critics will look at the victory as little more than what the experts said it was, a resurgent Nebraska against a Penn State team still trying to find itself.
Almost ironic in how that sounds compared to last year though, eh?
Obviously, NU is hoping their season goes better than Penn State's did last year, but in my estimation, this is yet another barometer for NU. They've already gotten over one hurdle, that big first game against an offense that at the very least had the hype, if not the substance to back it up. Now, it's another big game, this against one of the biggest traditions in college football.
Player's don't look at records, because a loss one week doesn't mean a loss any other week after that. Players don't look at stats, because no player or team is as good as their last game. They are only as good as their last snap.
In the end, some players will look at it as a payback game. Some players will look at it as the first big game against a big name that they have ever played. One thing is for sure though and that's that every single player that hits that field today, this game is the most important game there is, because though the coaches won't hang everything on one game and they'll tell their players to do likewise, when a team pounded you like Penn State pummeled NU last year, this game can go a long ways into wiping the slate clean and putting even more confidence in a team that little by little is at least feeling like Nebraska teams of old.
No, they don't look like it just yet, but if they win this game, they could start feeling like them and that's a pretty good place to start.
It's not your granddaddy's Penn State, but come on, it's still Penn State.
Steve Ryan can be reached at email@example.com or 402-730-5619