The idea behind The Blitz? Former Playbook scribes (and current FOS staffers) Mark Harrington and Nirav Dalal provide a fans' eye breakdown of the upcoming game. They discuss and debate pertinent issues, matchups and injuries, and — of course — provide their predictions. They also take an overview of the entire weekend in college football.
Like a pair of (undersized and very slow) outside linebackers, they pin back their ears and get after it. Sometimes they come through with big hits, other times they miss. But they always enjoy themselves.
ND: The Lions played some classic Joe Paterno football by lining up and running the ball down the throats of Purdue. The defense continued to give up plays in the passing game but the Boilers ineptness continued with yet another defeat. This weekend, the Huskers come calling to University Park. This matchup has been tense and close over the last two years. But, with Taylor Martinez out, we’ll see if the Huskers can build on that two-game winning streak over the Lions.
MH: Penn State’s running game has found a spark that could come in very useful to close out the season. The question is can the backfield warriors hold onto the ball? Now the Lions turn to Nebraska which is a tough team to predict. But it’s senior day, so emotions should be running high for PSU.
Who: Nebraska at Penn State
When: Saturday, November 23 at 3:30 pm ET, 12:30 am PT
Where: Beaver Stadium in University Park, PA
Series: Nebraska leads 8-7
TV: Big Ten Network
Line: Penn State favored by 2 points
OTHER BIG GAMES
ND: After calling the Oklahoma State victory over Texas last week, it’s now time to pick an Oklahoma State defeat. If there is a team that should be griping about not playing for the National Title, it’s the Baylor Bears and not Ohio State. Baylor’s offense is putting up a staggering 61.2 points per game and their defense is only yielding 17.4 points per game. They are averaging 684.7 yards of offense per game. Despite the game being in Stillwater and Baylor OT, Spencer Drango, out for the season, I really like Baylor to continue to light up the scoreboard.
MH: Keep an eye on No. 12 Texas A&M heading to No. 22 LSU. Both teams are trailing in the SEC West, but this is a victory each squad wants. Plus, since Sumlin has taken over TAMU, the Aggies have not lost a road game. Out west No. 17 Arizona Stat heads west to face No. 14 UCLA in a game that should heavily decide the Pac-12 South.
ND: There is one more top tiered team that is ready to fall. I’m not convinced that Missouri should be in the Top 10. They travel to play No. 24 Ole Miss and I think the Rebels will pull it off. Rebel QB Bo Wallace has been sharp throwing the football ever since the loss to Auburn. He’s got 11 TDs and has been completing 66.3% of his passes since that loss. The game is at home and I like the Rebels!
MH: Wisconsin has looked impressive in recent weeks, but I have a feeling No. 25 Minnesota will knock off No. 19 Wisconsin in Minneapolis. This game features two top 25 rushing attacks with two bottom-of-the-barrel passing games.
ND: The Lions rolled up their sleeves and ran the football very effectively last week. Zack Zwinak continues to show his ability to hang on to the football with the use of gloves. But, the real key was the ability of the offensive line to get downfield and open up lots of running lanes. I particularly liked the use of Kyle Carter in the backfield. His size and speed helped in blocking and it gives a really nice passing option on play action scenarios. I look for the Lions to continue to focus on running the football in this game. With both Zwinak and Bill Belton performing at a high level and the offensive line really getting into a nice groove, the ball control offense will not only help Christian Hackenberg but will also give the defense a good rest from the high-tempo offense that Nebraska runs. In passing situations, Hackenberg is doing a much better job of hitting intermediate receivers and using the tight end more. Both Adam Breneman and Jesee James had balls thrown their way. The mystery is whether this is a game where Brandon Moseby Felder and Geno Lewis are able to detract attention from Allen Robinson. Robinson continues to make plays whether he catches the ball or draws pass interference flags but his production would only increase with another real threat down the field. Both Felder and Smith have shown the capacity to make plays but I think Hackenberg just knows that Robinson will make a play regardless of what the coverage is.
Defensively, the Lions continue to struggle against passing quarterbacks. The play of the defensive line has been very good in running situations and they were able to get some good pressure on Purdue at times. In this game, the defensive line will have to stay in their lanes against the option looks of Nebraska. This is critical because the linebackers, as a whole, have not been great at making their reads on running plays particularly against teams that run the option or that have dual-threat QBs. Ben Kline improved the squads ability but his injury has put Nyeem Wartman back in the lineup. The linebackers have to not only make better reads but they will have to tackle well in this game. The Huskers have a very good rushing attack and RB Ameer Abdullah has a whole lot of wiggle to him. For the secondary, they have done a really good job at blitzing the QB and not enough credit can be sent to Jordan Lucas. His future in the conference is very bright. He is tackling better, his coverage skills are good and he is making plays all over the football. The safety play has been a liability as has been the coverage of the linebackers. I think John Butler will recognize this and will know that he has to stop the run, which will trigger many more zone coverage looks than we have seen this year. The defense has their work cut out for them in this one especially in stopping the run.
MH: If Zack Zwinak can continue to hold onto the ball the Lions should feature a heavy dose of the run game to draw in the defense and open up things for the passing game. I am pleased with the progress of the offensive line, but the close out of this season will be a good test for the unit. Getting a consistent push on the Husker front will be instrumental to putting drives together. Christian Hackenberg will have to spread the ball around moreso than last week where Allen Robinson caught 25% of his total passes. That is not to say don’t use Robinson, but to get him some room to make big pickups the passing game has to be distributed more evenly, at least early on. Robinson’s success has a lot to do with the trust Hackenberg has in him, but Felder or Smith to emerge on a more consistent basis would be huge for the offensive production.
On the other side of the ball, the secondary woes of continuing concern. Nebraska is ranked 89th nationally passing for 200.3 yards per game, but with the gaps in the PSU secondary coverage, any marginally decent passing game can find success. I am hoping we see more zone in this game to help support the safeties and tighten up these gaps. As you said, Nirav, Nebraska has the 16th best rushing attack nationally averaging 240.3 yards per game. Tackling has to be spot on in this game as Abdullah will drag out first downs, so wrapping him up has to be a priority. The other big defensive need is the pass rush. The front seven have to get a push on Nebraska QB Tommy Armstrong who has seven touchdowns and also seven interceptions on the year.
SCOUTING THE OTHER SIDE
ND: Nebraska has been without QB Taylor Martinez for a majority of this season. He has pretty much injured every body part imaginable. In steps redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong Jr. Armstrong is a dual-threat QB. He doesn’t run nearly as well as Taylor Martinez but he runs well. He has been very inaccurate throwing the ball. Though his stats reflect a 53% completion rate, the Huskers ask him to throw short passes and his long pass of the year is 38 yards. Regardless, the Huskers want to run the ball. RB Ameer Abdullah ran for 123 yards on 22 carries against Michigan State’s premier defense. This kid is fast and will bust some big runs against Penn State. They will line up and give Penn State a read-option look. They’ll line up in the eye formation and they’ll even line up in the pistol. No matter how they line up, Penn State should be prepared for an up-tempo offense. Nebraska will run at the snap and they keep running after the whistle. The Huskers have two WRs that are also very dangerous. Kenny Bell is a very good receiver with excellent hands. I think Quincy Enumwa is a special WR. He’s very big, physical and fast. He has 8 of the Huskers 21 receiving TDs. But, the one issue with the Huskers passing game is the accuracy of Armstrong. He often throws the ball off-target and has a propensity to turn the ball over.
Defensively, this is a different Husker defense. Normally, you think of very physical defenses that play great football in the front seven. This defense is more fast and finesse than physical. DE Randy Gregory has been having an amazing year. He’s at or near the top in sacks and tackles for loss. I have wondered how Gregory would have done as a TE. He has that type of speed and athleticism. He’s actually almost the same build as Jesse James. The LBs for Nebraska are also very fast and run well sideline to sideline. Nebraska has two MLBs that swap time – Michael Rose and Josh Banderas. Both guys are very good and have great instincts. Coach Pelini has hinted at a lineup next year where both guys are on the field. The Lions should be glad that they don’t face Nebraska again until 2017. The secondary is very good for the Huskers. They only have three interceptions but the team is leading the conference in passing yards allowed (990) and in opponent’s completion percentage (48.2). The key has been getting pressure on the QB and playing tight coverage on WRs, which leads to throw aways and breakups. Look for Nebraska to apply maximum pressure on the line of scrimmage to force Penn State to throw and to throw under duress.
MH: As you alluded to the Huskers like to run early and often. Penn State has to play disciplined assignment football against Nebraska’s read-option. The Huskers are not going to put the game on Armstrong’s shoulders and will have him play a supplemental role with short and intermediate passes. However, the secondary cannot sleep on him (or anyone for that matter) and have to play in tight on Bell in particular. Nebraska will try to run a quick offense and throw out a lot of different looks to confuse the PSU defense.
Defensively, this group has speed and will try to leverage this to flush out Hackenberg and force some quick decisions. This is where PSU’s TEs could be key to preserving drives. I expect Nebraska will try to disguise some pressure plays and try to dominate the edges of the pocket. Hackenberg will have to get some support on check downs and also protection from the pressure. He’ll need time to find targets and deliver the ball. The challenge will be to not drift into the tendency to abandon either aspect of the game if things get rough.
MATCHUP TO KICK BACK AND ENJOY
ND: I can’t wait to see what happens when Nebraska’s Randy Gregory and Penn State’s Donovan Smith collide. I do expect Penn State to bring a TE over to help Smith in this battle but Gregory is one of the premier pass rushers and general disrupters in the conference this year. Meanwhile, Smith has taken on a whole new level of “nasty” ever since Coach O’Brien gave his starting spot away a few weeks ago. This battle should be fun to watch. Speed against size. Athleticism against power. It’s going to be great!
MH: I want see Abdullah against Penn State’s defensive front. Abdullah is not huge at 5-9, 190 pounds, but he is shifty and needs to be contained. He’s very agile in traffic and has the ability to sidestep into an open lane effectively. PSU’s defensive front will have to get a hat on him and wrap up to snuff out extra yards.
KEYS TO THE GAME
ND: The ground game. Both teams like to run the ball and want to run the ball, particularly, on first down. Hackenberg is a good QB but he needs a balanced attack. Meanwhile, Armstrong struggles with accuracy but Nebraska goes as Abdullah goes. Whichever team can run the ball effectively the entire game will win.
MH: I think it comes down to PSU’s defensive push. If the front can get a rush on the pocket and force some things it should create opportunities by putting pressure on Armstrong and the passing game.
ND: Lots in the shuffle of a porous pass defense has been the lack of consistency by all three Penn State linebackers in the run game. I think Abdullah gashes the Lions in the second half and helps the Huskers come from behind to win.
Nebraska 27, Penn State 21
MH: Penn State’s secondary woes continue to concern me. Granted Armstrong is not an overly impressive passer, but they have made their share of average QBs look like all-conference selections.
Nebraska 24, Penn State 20
Until next time,
Fight On State!