Penn State - Nebraska Preview

The Nittany Lions take center stage in front of 110,000 strong and a national audience this Saturday evening at Beaver Stadium in a much anticipated matchup against the Nebraska Huskers. Marsh previews the big game.

Date: Saturday September 14, 2002
Time: 8:00 PM
TV: ABC National
Radio: Penn State Sports Network - Steve Jones doing play by play and Jack Ham providing color commentary

Penn State leads the series 6 to 5 and has taken 4 of the last 5 in Happy Valley.

What we know about the Penn State Offense

Penn State runs a balanced offense led by sophomore QB Zack Mills (left, AP Photo/Al Goldis).  Mills has an excellent grasp of where defenders are positioned and how to exploit any attempts at getting to him via a blitz package.  Teams that have tried to pressure Mills have wound up getting burned and beaten.

Mills is an extremely accurate passer who, if given time, can pick apart a defense.  Mills will also run the ball on a variety of option and draw plays that he again effectively utilized against UCF.

Larry Johnson is basically the only tailback Penn State has used this year.  Larry displayed good patience running through lanes against UCF and parlayed that into a 100-yard effort.  He's a big back with very good speed.  Sean McHugh and Paul Jefferson have split time at the FB spot.  Both backs did an excellent job of blocking against UCF and we know McHugh is an excellent receiver out of the backfield.

The offensive line featured Gus Felder at LT, Chris McKelvey and EZ Smith at LG, Joe Iorio at C, Tyler Lenda at RG, and Matt Schmitt at RT.  Smith has climbed over McKelvey on the depth chart at LG, and as for the rest, these are the players I expect to see playing against Nebraska with little substitution.

The line did an excellent job against UCF allowing zero sacks and opening some very big holes for the running game.

Casey Williams and Mike Lukac are listed as the top two players at TE, and unless something new develops these two will get the snaps against Nebraska.  Williams had a very good game against UCF, but at 5' 11" and 235lbs is still smallish by normal Big10 TE standards.

Bryant Johnson and Tony Johnson are as good a tandem of WR's as there is in the Big10 right now.  Neither has Charles Rogers' overall explosiveness, but I'd be hard pressed to name a pair of targets with their overall abilities in the league right now.  Either one of them can make something happen at any time.

PSU used both Gerald Smith and Ernie Terrell last week as 3rd receivers in a 3 WR set.  Given the presence of Bryant and Tony Johnson, Mills has not exactly sought out either of these two players as pass targets, but both have practiced very well and both possess a lot of speed and ability.

The strength of the PSU offense is the superior decision making and play making ability of Zack Mills.  Mills is very hard to get to in the backfield and plays in a manner that exploits attempts to get to him via a blitz.  Penn State runs a wide variety of plays, both passing and running, from a shotgun formation and these plays go wide, off tackle, and up the middle.  The run package of option plays, toss sweeps, off tackle power runs, draw plays, traps and the like make it hard on any defense to know where plays will go.

Improvements in the PSU offensive line over the off-season have made running the ball easier.  PSU had two fumbles against UCF from scrimmage as well as two more on returns.

When Mills throws the ball, his accuracy, timing and touch are extremely good.  That places a lot of stress on opposing secondaries.  Mills will not hesitate to throw deep, medium range, and short routes to any target.

Penn State was forced to punt only twice against Central Florida.


What we know about the Nebraska Defense

The strength of this Nebraska defense is in their front seven plus an excellent corner in DeJuan Groce, but it all starts up front at UNL.

Chris Kelsay is the guy you want to watch at DE for Nebraska.  He is typically lined up at left DE which is Zack Mills' blind side.  He's rangy, strong, and super aggressive in pursuit of the ball.  He has a wide variety of moves he will employ to get by the blocker and he's proficient in all of them.  Kelsay could be an All-American at Nebraska this year.  The DE opposite Kelsay is Demoine Adams.

Nebraska replaced two DT's this off-season, then one of the replacements blew out a knee and had to be replaced himself.  Jon Clanton and Ryon Bingham will start, and junior Patrick Kabongo and freshman LeKevin Smith should also see time at DT for Nebraska.

Barrett Ruud will line up in the middle of the Nebraska linebacking corps with Demorrio Williams and former walk on Scott Shanle on the outside.  Williams and Ruud have looked excellent this year.  Ruud has a cast on one hand and has a bursa sac issue on one knee as of the Utah State game this past weekend.  He is expected to play through that inconvenience.

DeJuan Groce is an excellent cornerback and already has several interceptions this year.  He is extremely quick and efficient in any of Nebraska's coverage schemes.  Former walk on Pat Ricketts is at the other corner spot.

Lornell McPherson and Fabian Washington are the back ups and I expect both will see time in this game.  Washington is extremely quick and aggressive despite being rather smallish at 5' 10" and 170lbs.

Nebraska has played some stiff defense this year, but nothing on the level of their better defenses of years past that totally shut other teams down.  No, this defense has been merely good, not great.

In the past two weeks UNL has yielded 347 total net yards to Troy State and 321 total net yards to Utah State, neither of which would be considered good teams.

This noted, Nebraska has been very good at the right times in all three of their games thus far.  They have been tough against the run yielding 2.9 yards per carry, and they are among the nations' leaders in interceptions.

Nebraska has run a complicated scheme of pass coverages over the years, but with replacing several players in this secondary from last year, I don't expect to see the normal level of sophistication from the Huskers in pass defense.


Keys for Penn State Offensively

The offensive line must run-block well enough for Larry Johnson (right, AP Photo) to be able to run the ball.  They must also keep the extreme pressure off of Zack Mills that UNL has been capable of bringing in recent years.  The key matchup to watch is Matt Schmitt against Chris Kelsay.  If Matt can hold his own, PSU will do well.  If not, Kelsay will have a field day.

Penn State has to hold onto the ball and not give it away with careless ball handling.  Nebraska has a ball hawking style of defense and you can't give them easy turnovers.

Expect much more variety in play calling than what we saw against UCF.  Expect Nebraska to use a limited number of pass coverage schemes but to run them well.  Even with that noted, expect the Johnson duo to get open long enough for Zack to get them the ball if the blocking holds up.

If all of the above happens, I am confident Zack Mills will move the ball against a good Nebraska defense enough for PSU to put some good points on the board.


What we know about the Nebraska Offense

Nebraska replaced three OL from its 2001 squad.  This year's line has been spotty in their blocking thus far, but they have shown steady improvement.

The line had big troubles running even a basic option scheme in the first two games, but this past week they did a little better.  Pass-blocking has been equally suspect, but that phase has also improved, albeit against lesser competition than PSU will bring.  Because of their young inexperienced OL, the Huskers have run more off-tackle running plays than I am used to seeing out of Nebraska.

Everyone thinks option when they think Nebraska, and rightly so.  Over the years Nebraska has run the most complex and varied set of option plays of any team in the nation by far.  But this year's Nebraska team has not run their option scheme real well thus far.

The Husker production has mainly been Jammal Lord's running and the power game with Dahrran Diedrick.  Lord has kept the ball on the vast majority of option plays and he's done a lot of scrambling out of the pocket as well.  Diedrick's production has come mostly on counters, traps, and other off-tackle running plays out of the standard Nebraska I-formation.

Nebraska has gotten virtually no production whatsoever out of their FB so far this year.

Despite the success Lord has had running the ball on keepers and broken plays, he has struggled passing the ball.  Nebraska has mainly been unable to mount any passing game at all until this past week against Utah State, and even then Lord completed only 8 passes.  Nebraska's main receiving threat is Wilson Thomas who has 9 receptions for 80 yards in 3 games, but no other target has caught more than 2 passes.

Compared to normal Nebraska teams, this one has struggled running their basic package of option plays.  Their run production has suffered tremendously because of that too.  Typical Nebraska teams would average about 350 yards rushing against the schedule they have played, but this years team hasn't been as productive as that.

Nebraska is 18 for 46 on 3rd down conversions thus far.  That is partly due to getting into long yardage situations and not being able to pass the ball at that point.  But this is still Nebraska, and the Huskers have historically improved from week to week early in the year.  The Huskers still have those big linemen and they have improved somewhat this year as well.  So, just like in the past, you have to be ready for some smashmouth power football from Nebraska.


What we know about the Penn State Defense

Penn State has a good front four.  Jimmy Kennedy and Anthony Adams have clogged up the middle so much the past couple of years that no team has effectively run off-tackle against PSU during that time.  Just about every team we have faced the past two seasons has run wide outside the tackles.

Tim Falls, Tyler Valoczki and Jason Robinson all saw time at DT against UCF.  We may see all of them against Nebraska too, but I expect Kennedy and Adams to see most all of the minutes in this game.

Penn State's DE's played spotty at best last year, but Michael Haynes (left, AP Photo/Paul Vathis) had as good a game at DE against UCF as I have seen out of any DE in a PSU uniform in the past ten years not named Courtney Brown.  John Bronson was solid if not spectacular against UCF and Lavon Chisley and Matt Rice also turned in good efforts and I expect both will play significant minutes against Nebraska.

Both make a strong a push upfield and Chisley's very long reach can pose problems for an option team.  Derek Wake and Lamar Stewart came off the field a lot verses UCF, but that won't happen against a running team like Nebraska.  Both of these guys are superior athletes and linebackers who have very good toughness and very good closing speed as well.  I expect them to play the vast majority of the game on the outside with Stewart occasionally being spelled by Deryck Toles.  These three LB's are all good enough to cause Nebraska real problems.  They'll have to play at the top of their game though as Nebraska will definitely try to run them over.

Gino Capone, Sam Ruhe, and Andy Ryland are listed 1,2,3 on our MLB depth chart.  Capone and Ruhe both played against UCF, but neither had what anyone would describe as a good game.  Ruhe played only one or two plays in that game.  Capone played about 80% of the snaps in that game as part of the PSU nickel package.

Penn State's secondary will look to play an important role in stopping the UNL running game.  Nebraska only throws about 15 times a game, so it's imperative that our DB's can also help out in run support when Nebraska is not passing the ball.  Assignment football is the key here.  Don't get caught napping and allow a long pass over your head while still helping out in run defense.

Bryan Scott and Richard Gardner ((right, AP Photo/Tom Roberts) will likely play almost every snap at corner.  It's possible that backups Gio Vendemia and Allen Zemaitis see action, but I'd guess it would be in no more than a spot role.

The safeties will be Shawn Mayer, Chris Harrell, Calvin Lowry, Paul Cronin and perhaps Andrew Guman.  Mayer may play virtually the entire game as he is a very sure tackler and is a real good run stopper.  I think we'll see some decent rotation among the others.  Penn State's secondary had several breakdowns in communication regarding coverage assignments against UCF that seemed to all lead to big plays.  That said, the tackling and pursuit of the ball once it was thrown or in run support was better by a large margin over what we have seen in recent years.


Keys for Penn State Defensively

Kennedy and Adams must take away the middle of the line on running plays.  If they do not, it will allow NU to get their running attack to the PSU MLB spot and I don't like that matchup right now.

Haynes and the other DE's have to get a good push upfield to help disrupt option and pass plays, but at the same time play controlled enough to not allow themselves to be totally sealed off of Nebraska's power run game on off-tackle plays.

Given the above, the play of the PSU LB's and safeties in run support is the key to the game.  It's basically always been that way defending the option.  Teams that have successfully defended against NU over the years have had some combination of very strong play from the tackles, quick play from the DE's, and very quick and aggressive LB and safety play in defending the run.

Special Teams Notes

Nebraska has blocked two punts and altered at least one other in three games.  They have returned two punts for touchdowns and have averaged 45 yards per punt when they have kicked themselves.

In their one game, PSU blocked a FG attempt, nearly broke a very long return in the punt game, and booted 5 of 6 kickoffs into and through the end zone.  Dave Royer had only two punts against UCF and the 2nd bounced right on the goal line before coming backwards to the UCF two yard line from 50 yards out, thus nearly pinning UCF inside their five yard line.  This has to be offset by the fact that PSU also had two fumbles on returns as well in that game.

Intangibles - The Big Play

Look for one team or the other to get a huge play early to seize momentum in the first half.  Don't be shocked if one or both teams try a gadget play to get a long gain over the opposition's defense.

Intangibles - Psychology

I honestly believe this is among the least talented Nebraska teams we have seen in the past 25 years.  They have limited teams offensively so far, but they haven't been totally shutting anyone down as many Nebraska teams have in recent years.  The NU team is good, but not great in coverage.  Penn State passes the ball well.

The Huskers have struggled on offense and their production is way off of their norms.  Penn State's perceived weakness in coverage in the secondary is offset by Nebraska's weak passing game.  Penn State's defensive strength is up front and that is where you'd think you'd want it to defend UNL.

Penn State lost Yaacov Yisreal to a knee injury this off-season.  Nebraska lost several players to the NFL with one even declaring for early entry.  One key player transferred.  UNL has two projected starters out for the year due to injury.  One other key player may miss this game and starting MLB Barrett Ruud is banged up.

Penn State is looking to prove they are back.  This ABC National game could give the program a huge boost.

So you'd think I'd call this intangible for PSU?  Nope.

Penn State has not done well in big games in recent years.  The past two years that was purely a matter of having lesser talent, but even when PSU has had top-notch talent in recent years they have been outclassed in big games.

I think PSU has more than enough talent to beat Nebraska in this game.  I don't have s single doubt in my mind that PSU can beat them.  Not one.  With Mills at QB, Penn State has the ability to score on any team in the country.  PSU has plenty of good athletes on defense as well, even some superior athletes.

But until I see them come out and play with serious aggression and no holds barred, I'm reluctant to say they will do it.

If PSU comes out and plays with the kick ass, take no prisoners attitude that former players like Shane Conlan and Trey Bauer spoke about in Town and Gown this summer, we'll have a good time on national TV Saturday night and Penn State will be back.  But if they come out timid, it will be another long night of frustration for everyone.

It's up the players. If they want to be thought of as bigtime players like the ones that beat Nebraska in 1982, they'll have to earn that with bigtime hard-nosed play.

The team that wants this game more is going to win it.  Penn State is either going to be the nail, or they are going to be the hammer.  The whole country will find out which is the case as the clock strikes midnight Saturday.

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