1. That broken record is still spinning
Number 9, number 9, number 9, number 9, number 9. … Apologies. The White Album suddenly flashed to mind. Here’s why: Penn State is plus 9 in turnover margin, tops in the Big Ten. Nebraska is minus 9 in turnover margin, last in the Big Ten. The positive number 9 for Penn State is one big reason the Nittany Lions have rolled to a 4-1 record in the Big Ten when many outsiders were counting them out. The negative number 9 for Nebraska is one big reason the Huskers had to rally from double-digit deficits in three Big Ten games that probably didn’t need to be that close. Certainly, talk of turnover troubles is one that has spun like a broken record around here. For the most part, save that long night in Columbus, Ohio, NU has managed to overcome those gaffes. But every Saturday that comes with a deficit in the turnover category is a Saturday that flirts with danger. Winning that battle is not an easy assignment for Nebraska this week. Penn State has turned the ball over just eight times this year. Nebraska has turned it over 23. How much easier could the Huskers make things on themselves if they didn’t turn the ball over 2½ times a game? This would seem as good a time as any to find out.
2. Bruises anticipated
It’s just another weekly black-and-blue brawl in the Big Ten. That’s what Husker offensive tackle Jeremiah Sirles expects. Penn State’s defensive front seven is experienced, disciplined, tough. And the Nittany Lions have two really good linebackers — Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges. Mauti gives a humdinger of an emotional speech. He also walks the walk on the field. PSU does well against the run — ranking 26th nationally. But Nebraska’s offense is coming off a 313-yard rushing day against Michigan State, which hadn’t given that many ground yards in seven years. So a collision is in the cards. The going might be tough, but can Nebraska’s up-tempo pace wear on the Nittany Lions as it has other Big Ten foes? If it does, you might see a big payoff start to come in the fourth quarter.
3. Not afraid to gamble
Oh, yeah, Bill O’Brien will spin the roulette wheel. Maybe that’s the only way to be when your kicking game has been such an adventure. The Nittany Lions haven’t made a field goal longer than 34 yards and had two blocked. That’s part of the reason the Penn State coach has gone for it on fourth down 30 times, converting 16 of them. That’s more fourth-down attempts than any team in the country but Army. (Nebraska has gone for it on fourth down just six times.) So even if the Husker defense wins on the money third down, don’t be surprised in certain cases if Penn State doubles down and goes for it on fourth. Expect anything and everything. Those in Nebraska’s camp are expecting to take Penn State’s best punch. As Husker running backs coach Ron Brown said: “Our guys better be ready, and I think they are, because these guys are loaded with character.”
4. Lions in the way
It’s right there. Nebraska players and coaches can no doubt see the path better than ever now. The path that takes them back to Pasadena, Calif. But just one stumble could kill the dream. And when looking at the Huskers' schedule, Penn State probably presents the biggest challenge remaining. The Nittany Lions are a proud team. There will be no bowl game for them this year. Instead, they seem to play every game as if it’s a bowl game. They’ll do the same Saturday. Be sure of it. Their quarterback, Matt McGloin, is one of the best examples of their pluck. He has thrown 18 touchdown passes and just three picks. Playing smart. Winning when people expected a loss. Of course, the Huskers have shown their share of fight, too. Coming back three times from double-digit deficits to win. That’s to be admired. But the goal after the Ohio State game was to finish the race with a 6-0 dash to Indy. So here is a very big game for both teams. Given the bond the two programs shared a year ago on that solemn Saturday, no one would mind if they met again at midfield to shake hands before the bell rings, would they?