With Rex Burkhead on the mend, it seems offensive coordinator Tim Beck has used Taylor Martinez far more in the running game. Expect that to continue after the quarterback scampered for 205 yards and a pair of touchdowns against Michigan State. The outside blocking by the receivers, particularly Kenny Bell and Quincy Enunwa, has been excellent and helped free Martinez up for a few long runs.
The Nittany Lions are fairly stout against the run, however. The PSU defense gives up an average of only 123 yards per game and features a number of future NFL players, including Gerald Hodges and Jordan Hill. But Nebraska will really have to keep an eye on Michael Mauti, who might be the conference's best defensive player. Mauti leads Penn State with 83 tackles and also has 2.5 sacks, three interceptions and a pair of forced fumbles.
Through nine games, Nebraska has shown no reason to ever pick against them in this match-up. They consistently grind out yards, whether the lead back is Burkhead or Ameer Abdullah, who has three straight 100-yard games. After torching the then-No. 1 rushing defense in the Big Ten last week, the NU running game is clicking right now.
NU Pass Offense vs. Penn State Pass Defense
Jamal Turner played the role of hero last week, hauling in the game-winning touchdown in the game's final seconds. With Tim Marlowe questionable due to a shoulder injury, Turner's role could increase this week. Bell and Enunwa are still Martinez's main targets and both are looking to get back on track after quiet performances against the Spartans.
On paper, Penn State's passing defense doesn't appear daunting. They allow 211 yards per game through the air, sixth in the Big Ten, and opposing quarterbacks complete 57.4 percent of their passes. Where they do thrive is rushing the passer, as they are tied with Nebraska for the conference lead in sacks with 24. None of their defensive backs stand out individually, but this unit breaks up a lot of passes. Mauti's coverage of Ben Cotton and Kyler Reed will also be interesting to watch.
Of course, this match-up is going to come down to Martinez. He has proven he can shred a defense with his arm, but he can also hand them some easy interceptions. The junior did both last week, but his late brilliance made up for early miscues. Penn State has an opportunistic defense, so Martinez will have to be more careful with the ball than he was for most of the Michigan State game.
Penn State Run Offense vs. NU Run Defense
After two straight strong performances against the run, the Huskers were pushed around a bit by the Spartans. But Penn State doesn't have a Le'Veon Bell on its roster. The Nittany Lions attack instead with Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton and Michael Zordich, a competent trio that thrives between the tackles. They don't possess much big-play ability, however, and their longest run of the season is 25 yards.
The Huskers want to see if they can rediscover the run-stuffing prowess they showed against Northwestern and Michigan. Will Compton, Sean Fisher and Alonzo Whaley will be busy Saturday, as will safeties P.J. Smith and Daimion Stafford, who might play closer to the line of scrimmage to help out against the run.
Penn State doesn't look to hit many home runs with its ground game. The Nittany Lions are content to plod down the field three or four yards at a time and have had success doing that this year. Nebraska must win the early downs, because if Penn State gets in a fourth-and-short situation, they are likely to go for it.
Penn State Pass Offense vs. NU Pass Defense
The Huskers certainly remember facing quarterback Matt McGloin last year, when NU frustrated him into a 16-for-34 passing day. But McGloin transformed himself into one of the conference's most efficient passers over the offseason. He is completing 62 percent of his passes and has 18 touchdowns compared to just three interceptions. McGloin has found a reliable target in Allen Robinson, who leads the Big Ten 57 catches, 689 receiving yards and eight scores.
The Huskers' secondary has been one of the conference's best all season, but they will be facing a different attack this week. The Nittany Lions don't ask McGloin to throw deep much. Most of his throws are near the line of scrimmage and heavily involve PSU's quartet of capable tight ends. It's unlike any passing attack NU has seen this year.
To prepare, Ciante Evans spent the entire week working on the outside instead of at his customary nickel spot and dime backs Justin Blatchford and Corey Cooper have prepared to spend more time on the tight ends. This is an extremely close match-up, and while I don't think McGloin will put up big numbers, he is very efficient and does just what the coaches ask of him. The PSU edge is razor thin.
Edge: PENN STATE
Special Teams, What If's and The X-Factor
As perplexing as Brett Maher's up-and-down senior season has been, Husker fans will appreciate him this weekend. His kicking counterpart, Sam Ficken, has struggled so mightily that coach Bill O'Brien usually opts to go for it on fourth down unless the field goal is a chip shot. Ficken is 7 for 14 on the year and has missed two extra points.
Penn State also doesn't possess any explosive players in the return game or on their coverage units. The PSU special teams doesn't make big plays - it just tries not to screw things up for the offense or defense.
Coincidentally enough, that's just the thing Nebraska's special teams tend to do. Each game they tend to make a critical error, whether it be a muffed punt, a missed field goal or giving up a kickoff return. Maher must cut down on the shanked punts.
Nebraska Will Win If:
It avoids turnovers. Penn State doesn't have the offensive firepower to move the ball all game on the Huskers, so Nebraska can't give them any short fields. The Nittany Lions lead the Big Ten in turnovers and turnover margin - Nebraska is last in both categories.
Penn State Will Win If:
Its offense is able to keep possession for large chunks of the game, bleeding clock while Martinez and company watch from the sidelines. The Nittany Lions will look to pressure Martinez early and see if they can rattle him into a few miscues.
The Huskers have both momentum and a goal in mind. They have won three straight, two of which included stirring fourth-quarter comebacks. As valiant as Penn State has fought this season, it has no postseason aspirations to compete for. They have proven their mettle all season and will fight hard, but NU's dreams of Indianapolis will push them forward.