Penn State Football: 7 Things What to Watch For From Lincoln
LINCOLN, Neb. – There will be plenty to look for when tuning into ABC-TV for Penn State’s Big Ten game at Nebraska here this afternoon, with kickoff at 3:30 p.m. Eastern time.
Here in person, what’s difficult to miss is the two cranes that loom over Memorial Stadium, at the west end of campus and just north of downtown Lincoln.
Penn State’s players could see it from their team hotel, four miles north of the city. And when heading to campus on Route 180 – not far from Cornhusker Highway – it jumps out of the skyline.
The cranes are the most prominent indicators that Nebraska is in the midst of a project that started last year and by the time it is completed will add 6,000 seats to the stadium’s east side. That will push attendances to over the 90,000 mark; today, look for a heavily red-clad crowd of over 85,000.
Nebraska has sold out every game at Memorial Stadium since Nov. 3, 1962, and the streak now stands at 324. An official sellout is 81,067. It’s quite a home(corn)field advantage. Since 1988, Nebraska is 146-20 at home – and that includes an 18-10 victory over the Nittany Lions when they last visited Lincoln, on Sept. 13, 2003. (Current Penn State defensive assistants Ron Vanderlinden and Larry Johnson Sr. were on the PSU staff at that time.).
Penn State last won here on Sept. 26, 1981, when Curt Warner ran for 238 yards on 28 carries to lead the third-ranked Nittany Lions past No. 15 Nebraska, 30-24.
Here’s what else to watch for this afternoon:
1. MIA Nittany Lions
Don’t be surprised to see a pair of injured Penn State players, defensive tackle Jordan Hill (knee) and tight end Kyle Carter (foot), get some action. Hill was injured during last week’s 34-9 trashing of Purdue, while Carter missed the game entirely. Special teams member Curtis Dukes, who sustained a concussion against the Boilermakers, will not play.
Sophomore tailback Bill Belton, buried deep on the Penn State bench last week after poor practice performance, should see the field sooner and a lot more often. It’s been an up-and-down year for Belton, who missed three games with injuries, ran for 103 yards against Iowa three weeks ago and then was stymied against Ohio State, gaining just 26 yards on 10 carries. Making it tough on him as well has been the steady play of strong-and-silent type Zack Zwinak, who has run for 543 yards over the past six games.
2. MIA Cornhusker
Nebraska beat writers are reporting that the Cornhuskers’ bruising back, Rex Burkhead, is likely to miss today’s game, his third straight, with a sprained MCL. In five games in 2012, Burkhead has averaged a whopping 8.6 yards per carry and 81 yards per game.
Sophomore I-back Ameer Abdulla has more than helped pick up the slack, rushing for 826 yards and eight TDs this season, with only four starts. He’s averaging 91.8 yards per game and 5.5 yards per carry. Huskers QB Taylor Martinez is also a running threat – he averages 74 yards rushing per game and 5.7 yards per carry, with eight running TDs.
3. Dust In The Wind
It’s going to be windy – up to 23 mph at game time – on the field, according to AccuWeather, and that very well could impact the Penn State passing game. The Nittany Lions throw the ball more (39 times to 28) than the Cornhuskers. And if my Friday afternoon run here is any indication, the winds in midwest-flat Lincoln will be more than gusts, they will be sustained.
Here is how you will see the effects of the wind: Sideline passes may be batted down by the wind and deep balls that naturally tail off in one direction will be thrown off and go another. The kicking game will be also be affected, not a good thing for Penn State, which is already shaky in this regard. Punts may soar or be slammed down – or both.
And Bill O’Brien’s predilection for going for it on fourth down will be tested even more – tricky and firm winds will likely keep Sam Ficken from attempting a field goal of any distance beyond 30 or 35 yards.
4. The Heat
At kickoff, the temperature should be 78 degrees. Great for the fans, not so great for the players. Penn State’s players have been practicing in 35-degree weather over the past week, so this is a big change. Normally, it would not be that big of a deal, but the game will be played at a very fast pace, which will especially test the conditioning of the defenses. And, in that regard, especially the defensive lines. Which makes Hill’s fitness even more critical.
5. The Tempo
Both teams score in a hurry; the average scoring drive in Big Ten play for both teams is over 50 yards and under three minutes. Based on their first five Big Ten Conference games, the offenses of Penn State (87) and Nebraska (77) will combine for 164 plays. That’s a huge number. Don’t expect O’Brien to take his foot off of the accelerator. Neither will Nebraska coach Bo Pelini, whose team has needed three frenzied second-half comebacks to win in its last four times out in the Big Ten.
6. Stopping McG
Over its past three games, the Cornhuskers’ defense has allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete just 37 percent of their passes. And for all of the 2012 season, that figure is just 46 percent. That makes Nebraska the best team in the nation at not allowing opposing quarterbacks to throw effectively.
Of course, they’ve not yet met Penn State’s Matt McGloin. The Nittany Lion senior completes 62.1 percent of his 37 passes per game, the vast majority of the short- to mid-range variety. The strategy has worked; McGloin leads the Big Ten in passing yards per game, with 270.7.
Paced by Martinez, Nebraska can play at a breakneck speed. And at times that results in breakdowns. He’s thrown eight interceptions (his backup, Ron Kellogg, has tossed another one), and the Cornhuskers have lost an eye-popping 14 fumbles. That’s 23 turnovers. Their defense has forced only 14 (six picks, eight fumbles), for a minus turnover number of nine.
Penn State, on the other hand, has been fastidious in holding onto the ball. McGloin has just three interceptions (in 340 attempts), and Penn State has lost only five fumbles. Defensively, Penn State has forced seven interceptions and 10 lost fumbles, for an overall turnover mark of plus nine.
That’s a difference of 18 turnovers, a significant chasm between teams that are 7-2 (Nebraska) and 6-3 (Penn State). What the turnover margins mean is this: If form holds, Penn State will get two more turnovers than Nebraska.
And that -- more than the wind and the sun and even a big crane towering over lots of people wearing red – usually means the difference between a win and a loss.