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Understanding Penn State

Unfortunately, there will not be mud.

Early weather forecasts for State College, Pa. on Saturday indicated that it was going to be chilly and rainy. That has since changed to simply chilly, which is too bad because if there is a game this season that deserved to be muddy it is this one.

It will be close. It will likely be ugly. It’s Nebraska’s slightly better than average defense against Penn State’s barely below average offense. It’s Penn State’s slightly better than average defense against Nebraska’s barely below average offense.

In short, there’s not a lot of separation here.

TRAJECTORY

 

Nittany Lions 5-year Trajectory

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Given the circumstances, it’s sort of difficult to piece together a good trajectory for Penn State but there are a couple of interesting points here. Remember the narrative of Joe Paterno’s final years? There was an occasional majority of Penn State fans who, despite everything Paterno had done, was ready to move into a new era. In four of his final five years, however, Paterno actually exceeded his expected win total, including 2011, his best performance of that span against expectation. The one year he didn’t? That was 2009′s 11-win season.

Now think about the perception of Bill O’Brien after 2012. Few expected the Lions’ to make it to 8-4 last year, but that total was actually almost a full game less than projected based on points scored and allowed. Ask Penn State fans and they’ll probably tell you the team ended up a game short because of last year’s Nebraska game, which might not be wholly inaccurate.

THE MATCH-UP

Of all the match-up graphics we’ve done this season, this one might be the most balanced…

 

Huskers v. Nittany Lions

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A few weeks back, Nebraska’s defense officially passed its offense relative to the national average. The Huskers passed another milestone this week and this one would’ve been even more unbelievable to Nebraska fans back in August — the rush defense is now statistically better than the rush offense.

That’s good timing for the Huskers because if a team can stop the run it’s typically tough to beat. The Nittany Lions aren’t a particularly good rushing team but they did better their season average by nearly a full yard per play against the Huskers last year. This year’s defense is probably better equipped to make thing tough for Penn State on the ground. It had better be as that represents Nebraska’s biggest advantage in this game.

Flip that match-up around and Penn State, not surprisingly, is playing pretty good rush defense. The Huskers’ offensive line is almost comically thin at this point, but I wouldn’t put it past Ameer Abduallah to somehow find a way to make plays in this game anyway. He’s that good. He’s having that kind of season.

What this game might really come down to is the quarterback duel. True freshman Christian Hackenberg hasn’t looked like a rookie too often this season and now, 10 games into the season, I’d be surprised if he looked like one all of the sudden this Saturday. His numbers wouldn’t wow you if he were a senior, but for a freshman a nearly 60-percent completion rate is pretty good and he has the conference’s best receiver, Allen Robinson, to throw to. Nebraska will have to be mindful of him of course but the Huskers have traditionally done a good job of not letting star wide receivers get loose. If Nebraska’s stuffing the run like it should, that task becomes much easier.

But what about Tommy Armstrong Jr.? The redshirt freshman hasn’t truly had to beat a team with his arm yet. The Huskers’ game-winning drive against Michigan was probably the closest we’ve come to seeing that, and — given the state of the o-line — don’t be surprised if the Huskers have to rely on Armstrong’s arm and speed option ability a lot this week. It’s going to be a tough assignment, but late November games always are.

HOW YOU’LL KNOW THE HUSKERS ARE IN GOOD SHAPE

There’s always a gap between the rush defense numbers in wins and losses for any team, but Penn State’s is particularly glaring. In the Nittany Lions’ six wins this season, they’re giving up 2.41 yards per carry. That same average is 5.52 in the four losses. Not surprisingly, Penn State hasn’t beaten a team that’s averaging more than 200 yards per game on the ground. Nebraska enters averaging 240. If that bruised and battered offensive line can somehow carve out some room for Abdullah, Armstrong and the others, the Huskers’ task becomes significantly easier. Nobody would’ve guessed that Nebraska could do it last week against Michigan State, so don’t totally write off the Huskers’ chances of running the ball just yet. If they can, they’ll control this game.

WHEN TO WORRY

There’s not much difference between either Hackenberg’s or Robinson’s numbers in wins versus losses. They are what they are. Beating Penn State this season has largely been a matter of limiting Hackenberg’s other options in the passing game. Robinson is going to get his catches and yards, but in the Nittany Lions’ four losses the rest of the receiving corps has largely been held in check. It might be counterintuitive, but if you find yourself saying “Receiver Not Named Allen Robinson is killing Nebraska,” the Huskers are likely in some measure of trouble. Nebraska can live with a 10-catch, 138-yard day from Robinson — that’s what he’s averaging in losses this year — but it has to be sound in its pass defense everywhere else.

UNIFORM ANALYSIS

They’re white. And blue. Is there any more to it than that? OK, fine. Back when I was a kid, I hated these uniforms but I’ve come to appreciate their understated brilliance. The jerseys only real adornment are the uniform numbers, minus the requisite Swoosh. I tend to see a lot of gray area in things, but one thing I hold true is that non-outlined jersey numbers are typically a sign of excellence. It’s tough to find too many examples of teams that have a one-color number on a one-color jersey and don’t look good. That’s why this particular uniform match-up will be exquisite.

Just wish there was some mud, though.