Penn State’s roster will soon feel the debilitating effects of NCAA sanctions from the Jerry Sandusky scandal -- a loss of 40 scholarships over the next four years. To that end, first-year coach Bill O’Brien said he’s contacted some schools about how they developed their walk-on programs -- or what O'Brien has called "run-ons" for his team.
“There is no question, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Iowa, those places have great traditions of run-on programs, and those guys, they just have done an excellent job, whether it was Coach (Bo) Pelini or Tom Osborne or Frank Solich when he was there,” O’Brien said. “They've done a good job of making sure that they bring in kids, whether they’re scholarship kids or run-on guys, that they’re going to be good players for them. They develop them in practice.”
Penn State has won its first three Big Ten Conference road games by an average of 25.6 points. True, the competition wasn’t fierce -- at Illinois, at Iowa, at Purdue. But the fact remains that O’Brien, with an upset in Lincoln on Saturday, would become only the second Big Ten coach since 1950 to win his first four conference road games. The other coach: Ohio State’s Earl Bruce.
O’Brien said he expects a loud, very intense atmosphere at Memorial Stadium.
“I’ve never been to Nebraska, but from what I hear, they have respectful fans, they're loud, they cheer for their team and they appreciate an opponent that plays hard and plays clean,” O’Brien said.
Purdue became the first team this season to score on Penn State in the first quarter when the Boilermakers kicked a field goal on their opening drive. Penn State has outscored its opponents 76-3 in the first quarter this season, and 137-33 in the first half. Those are the fewest first-quarter and first-half points allowed in the nation.
NITTANY LIONS ON OFFENSE
Watch a New England Patriots game, and you’ll have a good idea of the type of offense Nebraska will face Saturday.
That’s what NU secondary coach Terry Joseph told his players this week in the meeting room.
“This offense is a difficult one to defend,” Joseph said. “Some great tight ends who move around, guys who have a lot of catches, and they’re big guys, too. We have to get aligned, we have to communicate, but we also have to be aware, because they switch up the alignments of their tight ends and receivers a lot.”
Penn State’s tight ends have accounted for 66 receptions, 820 yards and eight touchdowns. Freshman tight end Kyle Carter is second on the team in receptions (35) and receiving yards (441) but missed Saturday’s game at Purdue because of injury, and is questionable to play against Nebraska.
But Penn State didn’t miss him much: Jesse James, a true freshman tight end, had three catches for 49 yards and a touchdown against the Boilermakers. Also keep an eye on Matt Lehman (16 catches, 196 yards).
The Nittany Lions will have two tight ends on the field at most times, Joseph said.
“It’s just a little bit different on how we have to fit our coverages versus the run, because those guys can be blockers just as good as they can be receivers. It’s a little bit more difficult for us because you don’t see it every week.”
Quarterback Matt McGloin is completing 62.1 percent of his passes, and receiver Allen Robinson leads the Big Ten in receptions (57) and yards (698). The running back spot is open to competition every week, O’Brien said, with Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton and Derek Day combining for 922 rushing yards (4.4 yards per carry).
NITTANY LIONS ON DEFENSE
If Nebraska doesn’t get off to a quick start offensively against Penn State, don’t be surprised. Opponents have gone three-and-out 10 times out of 26 first-quarter drives, and have had two other possessions end in turnovers.
(Of course, it helps when the offense controls the ball like Penn State does; the Nittany Lions hold the ball for an average of 9 minutes, 2 seconds in the first quarter.)
Penn State is also stout in the red zone; opponents are scoring only 63 percent of the time (17-of-27) after getting inside the Nittany Lion 20-yard line. That leads the Big Ten, and Penn State is also first in the conference in turnover margin, and tied for first in sacks.
Naturally, two linebackers at “Linebacker U” are the heart of Penn State’s defensive success. Seniors Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges have combined for 159 tackles, including 10 1/2 for loss. Mauti has forced two fumbles, and Hodges leads the team with five pass breakups.
“Really, that whole front seven is a very physical group,” NU offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. “They run to the ball, gang tackle.”
The Nittany Lions, though, could be without senior defensive tackle Jordan Hill, who has 45 tackles, with an interception, a forced fumble and a recovered fumble. Hill is battling a knee injury.
NITTANY LIONS ON SPECIAL TEAMS
Well, it’s been an adventure this season for Sam Ficken, who became Penn State’s kicker when Anthony Fera transferred to Texas. Ficken is 7-of-14 on field goals, but he’s made five of his last six attempts. He’s missed two PATs.
Ficken’s longest field goal is 34 yards – he’s 0-of-4 from 38 yards and longer – which helps explain why Penn State has attempted 30 fourth-down conversions this season. The Nittany Lions have made 16 of them for a 53.3 percent conversion rate.
Alex Butterworth is averaging 36.3 yards on 36 punts, with only three traveling more than 50 yards.
Penn State has blocked two punts, and had two field goals blocked.