Nebraska returns to State College, Pa., for its first visit since a three-point win in the days after Joe Paterno was fired in November 2011. Much different circumstances exist this time.
Here’s what to watch:
Nebraska’s attempt to slow Allen Robinson: With apologies to Nebraska I-back Ameer Abdullah and defensive end Randy Gregory, Penn State’s junior wideout is the best player in this game. Robinson leads the Big Ten in receptions and receiving yards and forms a dynamic duo with freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg. The Nittany Lions will find a way to create favorable matchups for Robinson. It’s up to the Huskers' much-improved defense to play well in coverage and make tackles when Robinson gets the ball.
The turnover battle: Nebraska has struggled to take care of the football over its past five games, committing 16 turnovers. Nearly as troubling, it’s forced only three for a minus-13 margin that ranks last nationally over that period. Five turnovers last week in Lincoln cost Nebraska a chance to beat Michigan State. Penn State isn’t much better in this area, ranking 99th in turnover margin to the Huskers’ 106th. This sounds like the mantra week after week for the Huskers, but they need to play a clean game offensively and on special teams.
The O-line woes: More trouble struck the Nebraska offensive line this week as Cole Pensick, the Huskers’ center turned guard, missed practice time because of a knee injury suffered against the Spartans. Pensick, tackle Jeremiah Sirles, and guards Jake Cotton and Mike Moudy are all questionable to play in State College. That leaves a patchwork group that might include sophomores Givens Price, Ryne Reeves and Zach Sterup in addition to junior Mark Pelini and senior Brent Qvale. At this point, it’s amazing that the Huskers’ pass protection and run game have held up. Credit O-line coach John Garrison and his men for their fight.
Tommy Armstrong Jr.’s mindset: To date, the Huskers’ redshirt freshman quarterback has proven resilient at handling everything from a flurry of turnovers to hostile crowds and uncertainty over his playing time. But in five starts before last week, he never dealt with a loss. As Armstrong heads back into a huge stadium on the road, his confidence and poise might have taken a hit, considering that two of his fumbles against the Spartans led directly to touchdowns. Keep an eye on how he rebounds.
The Huskers’ mood: Nebraska players and coaches said all the right things this week. The Huskers are eliminated from contention for a league title with two games left for the first time since 2007. Pride remains a key source of motivation. It’s been a tough week in Nebraska, though, with negativity swirling and speculation at an six-year high over the job status of the head coach. Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst is predictably quiet about Bo Pelini. The Huskers are adopting a bunker mentality, but if adversity strikes again, how will they respond, knowing the climate back home is ripe for controversy?