The question marks seem to be answered only by more questions when it comes to either of these teams. Penn State comes off a horrible year that saw them look more like an Ivy league school in the first half of the season instead of the perennial Big Ten power it's supposed to be. A late-season surge garnered them a few more headlines, but it didn't put them in a bowl and it certainly hasn't put a true heir of confidence in their fans.
For Nebraska, it's youth gone wild as the Huskers have been trying to find continuity from a group of youngsters spanning both sides of the line. Almost an entire O-line, almost the entire interior D-line, linebackers, secondary and oh yeah, they had to replace a Heisman Trophy winner. Through three games, fans for NU have likewise not been taken aback by confidence, even though NU has had three games, won three games and is favored to win this one as well.
Sometimes, you can't win no matter what you do.
What this game offers for both teams is a true barometer for where they are at. It's going to be a game that will tell much of who's "comeback" is filled with promise and who's is going to need a little more work. Odd, talking about NU making a comeback. After all, even if they hadn't played in the national title game last year as so many thought they shouldn't, they still would have been one of the top five rated teams in the country. But, the last two games for NU apparently made a stronger statement about what they are capable than all the other games preceding. For Penn State and for their fans, there is little place to go, but up. Last year was a disaster and not even a late-season push from the offense could keep this season from being termed as one that could actually cost the infallible Joe Paterno. This game will definitely brighten some hopes and diminish some at the same time.
Let's look at Penn State.
Zack Mills - QB - Sophomore - Mills' age aside, he's a veteran by all accounts. He started last year as a freshman, breaking four passing and total offense records at Penn State. That debut makes him a marked man for awards this year, but also, defenses will key on him specifically. His single greatest performance was against Ohio State last season as he piled up 418 total yards, helping to defeat the Buckeyes, 29-27. Mills is versatile at both running and throwing, making him the first legit multi-faceted QB that NU will face this year. He will lead a balanced Lion attack and is easily the most respected weapon PSU will have on offense this year. Expect NU to have someone shadowing him all game long.
Backfield - Larry Johnson will be the primary ball carrier for the Lions in this game and the fullback duties will fall to 6-5, 260 lbs. Sean McHugh. 6-5? 260 lbs.? Are you kidding me? Penn State certainly won't be lacking for girth in the backfield, but how about their overall effectiveness? Against Central Florida, Johnson fran for 92 yards on 18 carries. That's roughly 5 yards a pop. McHugh saw little action in terms of carrying the ball, but his usefulness is best spent utilizing his size for blocking, rather than carrying the ball, unless of course they are in short yardage situations. Johnson is a good back, but won't blow you away with any one particular thing he does. His effectiveness comes mostly from the success of his line. Yeah, all backs can say that, but NU will not have to key on Johnson like they are going to have to key on Mills. It's good backfield, but the O-line for PSU is the difference maker here.
The Offensive Line - Big, experienced, physical, strong. They all apply when you talk about the Lions' front group. Only Left Guard, E.Z. Smith isn't a senior. Technically speaking, three from this unit have already graduated, so NU will be confronting what could be one of the best O-lines they see all year. The smallest lineman is the aforementioned, E.Z. Smith at 287, while the largest is Left Tackle, Gus Felder who weighs in at a staunch 327. You don't have to look much farther than this unit right here in figuring out where PSU will depend as to the most success it will have this year. Though Mills is as likely to leave the pocket as stay, this unit will make his life much easier no matter what he decides to do. Guarding against Mills beating them is NU's first priority, but they are going to have to deal with this group first, to even have a chance. NU's major positive here is that all year, they have been shuffling just about every D lineman they have off the two-deep with literally no fall off in performance. That depth is going to be needed this weekend to be sure.
Receivers - A good group that you could just as easily call "the Johnsons". Bryant and Tony Johnson exists as the primary receivers, but don't be surprised if Larry Johnson is catching balls out of the backfield. Thus far this year, Bryant Johnson is the statistical leader, averaging almost 30 yards a catch in their first contest against UCF. At 6'2" and 201 lbs. Bryant is just physical enough to be good in man to man, but definitely nimble enough to be extremely good in space. For NU's new zone look, this offers both challenges and opportunities for the PSU wideouts, but for once, this will be something NU has actually seen already this year. NU has been faced with one opponent after another that uses spread offenses, passes a lot and utilizes short and quick attacks to move the ball down the field. Also, NU has faced two probable All-american candidates in Shaun McDonald (ASU) and Kevin Curtis from Utah State. This unit will bode as a good challenge, but shouldn't offer NU anything it hasn't seen before.
D-Line - Jimmy Kennedy. Remember this name. He's a flat-out stud. 6-5, 315 lbs. That's enough to make you take a step back, especially when you realize he's a DT, but he's not anything new to anyone out there. Kennedy is on virtually every pre-season All-american list, he'll be in contention for the Lombardi award and this guy is going to give any NU lineman that has to guard him fits all day long. He will no doubt be seeing a ton of double-teams which will give his line-mate, Anthony Adams a little room to work. As for the RE position, the entire D line of PSU will not kill you with their speed, but they may batter you to death with their strength. That's what these guys are. Strong and Big. That means they are good against the run. UCF would agree as they accumulated a paltry 65 yards on the ground against Penn State. Granted, UCF isn't notorious for their rushing attack and they actually did quite well against PSU in the air, this game up-coming will be NU vs PSU and that means, the run will most definitely matter. If you ask me, this is the game right here. What NU does against this D-line will dictate the entire scope of the contest. If NU can put yards up early on this unit, it's over for the Lions. If not, this could be a battle of attrition.
Linebackers - From a university dubbed "linebacker U", this unit probably won't be inspiring awe from those that watched Lavar Arrington destroy the competition as a Lion. LaMar Stewart is getting a lot of publicity as the future for reinstating that dominance at the position, but sideline to sideline, this unit will be collectively solid, if not spectacular. Solid is good though. Solid wins games, it doesn't make a lot of mental mistakes and when your most stellar player is the least experienced, you can bank on a unit that might not win games for you, but they won't lose them for you as well. With the way that I expect PSU to play though, much of what the PSU linebackers are (bigger), will help them this weekend. I don't expect any of the linebackers to be more than five to seven yards off the line of scrimmage all game long. Unless Jammal Lord heats the Lions up early and often, I would expect to see the PSU backers duplicate what everyone else has done against NU thus far. Stack the box and stay there. It will be up to NU to move them into coverage. If NU can't, the Huskers could be in for a long day, because you combine PSU D-line with the sizable Backers, and that's just too much muscle to be moving off the ball for an extended period of time.
Secondary - Bryan Scott is the name to watch here. He's on the Thorpe watch list, started all 11 games for Penn State last season and led the team in solo tackles last year with 62. He will be the leader on a unit that could be considered the one unit Penn State is at it's weakest. There's a lot of experience here, but if last week's performance against UCF is any indication (they gave up 345 yards passing), a mostly veteran group is going to have to learn some new tricks. Granted, most fans will dismiss NU's ability to exploit this apparent nick in the armor of the Lions, but as little as you have seen of what Jammal Lord can or can't do, I would say that PSU fans are guarded in their optimism as to their overall effectiveness. And, let's not discount NU's receivers, who this year are a remarkably athletic bunch, being led by 6-6, Wilson Thomas. You could expect Scott to be shadowing Thomas almost exclusively throughout this contest, but for Lord, this is but another learning experience.
Special teams - One little piece of advice to Punter, David Royer. Wherever DeJuan Groce is, don't punt there. That strategy alone could save Penn State giving up a touchdown. Penn State has a couple of good returners themselves, especially on kickoffs. Both Larry and Tony Johnson returned kicks last week against Central Florida, Larry returning one 53 yards and Tony, taking one back 22 yards. Special teams is always the most underrated aspect of what a team can do to hurt the other guy. PSU does have good special teams, but again, don't punt to Groce. That alone could make a huge difference.
This is the kind of game I can really sink my teeth into. No panty waist run n' gun, no fad-like west coast offense, this one is smash mouth football all the way. Big, physical, powerful teams telling the other guy to hit them and we'll find out who's stronger. It's up the gut, it's in your face and it's the kind of football this game was built on. Yeah, there will be some passing, but this game is going to be full of a whole lot of slobber-knocking bruisers paving way and making holes. I will take this over a pass-happy affair anyday.
Both teams bring a lot of the table for this kind of warfare. You need size, you need strength and you need a nastiness to do it for, four quarters. Each has that and in abundance. NU is the one sporting more youth in the trenches, but their performances thus far has shown much in the way of what you are likely to see. NU's O-line should be expectedly better this week, because Solich is actually going to use the NU playbook this week for something other than a foot stool. NU fans are excited, because up to this point, "vanilla" doesn't even describe how NU has been orchestrating their offense. They were waiting for this game.
Mills will have a shadow most of the game, probably in the form of either Demorrio Williams or T.J. Hollowell. Either one has more than enough speed to keep up with anybody the PSU throws at them from the backfield, so expect one or the other to be in Mills' face all game long. Jammal Lord will be the ex-factor for NU as his success throwing and not running the ball will determine much for Nebraska. Yeah, I already said I don't like all those passes, but you have to go with what wins games. Can PSU make a living running the ball against NU? Not a chance, but neither can NU do that against Penn State. Nebraska will have to find a way to keep the backers honest, keep the secondary way back in the secondary and free up the option to be used to it's fullest capabilities. PSU will stack the box initially. Everyone does against NU. It will be up to Lord to make them pay for it.
All the time, you hear about a game that is won in the trenches. Those types of games usually pit very physical teams that run before they pass or at the very least, do each in equal portions. This is one of those games, in fact, this game should be trench warfare at it's finest. You've got all the makings of a frenzied and furious battle down there on either side and for either team. It's about who's tougher. Who has the horses to stand up to that kind of battle for sixty minutes and especially on defense, who's got the depth.
Who's tougher? Impossible to say until the smoke clears, but who's more physical? You might say that PSU's size gives them the edge, but you aren't going to see me bet against NU's unit for physical superiority. NU has some guys on this line that are flat out nasty. As for Depth, at least defensively, this one is all NU. PSU has one of the best Defensive Tackles in the country, but even the best tire and who backs them up is just as important as what the starters do once they step on the field. Nebraska has done nothing but sub on that D line all three games. You can't bank on any one player on the interior being there for more than maybe a couple of plays. They still get the push, they still plug the middle and their depth is the reason this line looks so good, especially in the long run.
On the offensive line, I have to give the edge to PSU, because of the experience. On the D line, I have to give the edge to NU, because they don't have one playmaker, they have a ton. Bingham, Kabongo, Evwaraye, Smith, Adams and Clanton. All of them have been stellar in their time on the field thus far. You can't put a price on depth like that and any offensive line will be hard pressed to continually stop depth like that.
This is a line battle, but NU's focus will be on Zack Mills. Keep him in the pocket, don't let him hurt you on the ground and NU should be able to hurry him and could even sack him a time or two. For Penn State, it's a matter of making Jammal Lord beat them, but Lord has done nothing but get better every single week. It's just a matter of time before that stacked box theory backfires and Lord makes them pay. That week could be now.
107,000 people has it's effect on the visiting team, but as they say, none of them can play the game. It's 11 on 11 and in this case, this week, NU has the edge. They have the horses to beat PSU at almost every position and where they might lack in individual talent, they make up for in depth. It will be a grind, but the second half should be NU's territory to run and I see Nebraska pulling slightly away in the end.
A classic in the making? Who knows, but this one won't come down to a botched sideline call or a trapped ball in the endzone. My prediction is Nebraska 34, Penn State 14
Players of the game:
Offense: Jammal Lord
Defense: Patrick Kabongo