Penn State Football: Three Storylines Heading Into Nebraska — Hey, At Least It's Football This Year
Penn State hit the practice field Wednesday evening with temperatures hovering around 40 degrees. Of course, strength coach Craig Fitzgerald wore shorts and a T-Shirt. Tight ends coach John Strollo and defensive coordinator Ted Roof wore shorts and gray hoodies. Mac McWhorter, the offensive line coach, was in sweats. Larry Johnson was bundled up in a varsity jacket and hat.
Welcome to November in the Big Ten, though the high in Lincoln, Neb. for Saturday's game against the Cornhuskers is supposed to be 77 with a chance of severe thunderstorms. Certainly not Big Ten weather for November.
Then again, nothing about this series has been normal since the Big Ten announced Penn State and Nebraska would be an annual cross-division game. There were high expectations pitting two of the most historical programs in the history of the sport together. Penn State fans feel their team deserves the 1994 national championship. Nebraska, meanwhile, is still shaking its head over the 1982 game that involved a questionable catch near the sidelines. Call it even.
Last year's game, Nebraska's first year in the Big Ten, was overshadowed by the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal, then just a week old. Bo Pelini didn't think the game should've been played, even after a 17-14 victory at Beaver Stadium. So, in that context, weird weather seems like a walk in the park.
Big-picture storyline is simple: Nebraska, a program teetering on the edge of breaking through to the elite after more than a decade's wait since its last conference championship in 1999, is looking to inch closer to Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship game. Penn State, with three games remaining in a season unlike any other in its history, has one last road trip against a top-20 opponent.
There's a few more within the game that will go a long way toward determining whether Penn State walks off the field Saturday with a win.
Chris Antonnaci, the Big Ten Network's statistician, says Nebraska leads the Big Ten with 57 plays of 20 or more yards. Ohio State is second with 50. Both deploy running quarterbacks, and Ohio State's Braxton Miller gave Penn State a handful Oct. 27 at Beaver Stadium despite completing about 57 percent of his passes this season.
Taylor Martinez, Nebraska's quarterback, has upped his completion percentage to 62 percent from 56 in 2011. While struggling last week at Michigan State, he torched the Spartans for 205 yards rushing. What has caught the attention of the Penn State defense is Martinez's straight-line speed. Penn State, which turned in one of its best tackling performances last week at Purdue, will need to replicate that play when facing Martinez. Take a poor angle or miss your chance to wrap him up, and it's tough to catch him once he accelerates.
Jordan Hill, Penn State's All-Big Ten candidate defensive tackle, participated in the team stretch then headed into Holuba Hall during individual drills in the 20-minute window the media was allowed to watch practice Wednesday. Hill is day-to-day with what the team is calling a sprained left knee, and his status for Saturday is uncertain. A decision will be made by the end of the week.
James Terry, who replaced Hill on Saturday, said Wednesday he expects to play as many as 55 snaps, which would easily be a career-high for the fifth-year senior.
Kyle Carter, the redshirt freshman tight end, looked mobile at practice Wednesday. He continued to have his left foot wrapped, but it looks like Carter, second on the team in catches and receiving yards, will see some action, and, at least, make the trip to Nebraska.
Reserve running back and special teams contributor Curtis Dukes (head), was held out of drills during the practice session open to the media.
Bill Belton, the sophomore running back, looked like he had some bounce in his step at Wednesday's practice. That's a good sign that Belton took to heart coach Bill O'Brien's word that practice determines playing time. O'Brien hinted that Belton, the starting tailback heading into the season, wasn't practicing well enough to warrant touches. He received none last week at Purdue, this after rushing for more than 100 yards Oct. 20 at Iowa.
"Everything that happened was on me not because of someone else," Belton wrote on Twitter before Wednesday's practice. "I got to comfortable. Never will I ALLOW that to happen again."
Truth is, Penn State has survived without Belton. He missed most of September with a sprained ankle, but Zwinak and Mike Zordich have filled in, and Zwinak is coming off a career-high 134 yards last week at Purdue. Belton is shiftier than Zwinak and may be more apt to busting a long run, but Zwinak has shown his style is equally, if not more effective. He's also been an asset catching the ball out of the backfield.
O'Brien on Tuesday reiterated that practice will always hold significant weight in determining who plays.
"From Day 1 that I arrived here and our staff arrived here we've talked to our guys about the importance of practice and producing in practice," O'Brien said. "Everything you get is earned. It's earned on the practice field.
"So there is no message being sent. That was just‑‑ that's what we do. There is a reason why you practice. You practice to compete and get ready for games, and life is about competition. We try to compete every day and we try to be as fair as we can as coaches and tell the players who are starting or who are going to play important roles, why they're playing and the other guys need to step it up and tell them why."