Can Christian Hackenberg lead Penn State to the win?
Penn State and Nebraska are in the midst of semi-disappointing seasons, so it’s appropriate both teams meet in late November looking to get back on track.
The Cornhuskers lost 41-28 to Michigan State last week, which essentially clinched the Legends Division for the Spartans. In the loss, Nebraska outgained Michigan State 392 to 361 but committed five turnovers.
The Nittany Lions lost 24-10 to Minnesota in Week 11 but rebounded by beating Purdue 45-21. Penn State went 8-4 in Bill O’Brien’s first season and could finish with that mark once again, provided the Nittany Lions beat Nebraska and win at Wisconsin on Nov. 30. While finishing 8-4 once again is a difficult assignment, Penn State had to replace a handful of key players from its 2012 squad, and true freshman Christian Hackenberg is still learning the ropes at quarterback.
Nebraska owns an 8-7 edge in the overall series against Penn State. The Cornhuskers have claimed the last three games against the Nittany Lions, including a 17-14 victory in Happy Valley in 2011. Nebraska won 32-23 in Lincoln last year.
Penn State vs. Nebraska
Kickoff: 3:30 ET
TV Channel: Big Ten Network
Spread: Penn State -2
Penn State’s Key to Victory: Mistake-free game from QB Christian Hackenberg
In last week’s loss against Michigan State, Nebraska committed five turnovers and lost 41-28. But that’s not the biggest concern for coach Bo Pelini. The Cornhuskers have lost the turnover margin in each of their last five games, which was also a significant factor in a loss to Minnesota. In Penn State’s last two losses (Minnesota, Ohio State), Bill O’Brien’s team had a negative turnover margin. In their last two wins, the Nittany Lions were a +1 in turnover margin. Both teams have a freshman quarterback, and both plan to give a heavy dose of the rushing attack on offense. But it’s no secret there’s not much separating these teams. With that in mind, a turnover or two could swing this game in favor of one side.
Nebraska’s Key to Victory: Establish Ameer Abdullah
Penn State had to replace four starters in its front seven this preseason, and at times, this unit has struggled to stop the run. After six Big Ten games, Penn State ranks seventh in the conference in run defense, allowing 172.2 yards per game. Due to allowing 408 rushing yards against Ohio State, the Nittany Lions’ defensive numbers are slightly skewed, but the front seven was gashed by UCF for 219 yards, 150 against Indiana and 195 versus Minnesota. Michigan State’s front seven is arguably the best in the Big Ten, and Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah managed 123 yards on 22 attempts. With freshman Tommy Armstrong starting once again this Saturday, Abdullah needs to carry the offense. If the junior has a strong performance, it will help relieve some of the pressure on Nebraska’s young quarterback.
Key Player: Nebraska QB Tommy Armstrong
As a freshman, it’s no surprise Armstrong has experienced his share of ups and downs. Through seven games, he is completing 53 percent of his passes, while tossing seven picks and seven scores. Armstrong struggled in last week’s loss to Michigan State (9 of 21), but the Cornhuskers won’t have to rely solely on his arm to win, especially with Abdullah performing at a high level. Keep an eye on Armstrong’s mobility this Saturday. The freshman rushed for 69 yards in a win over Northwestern, and after Penn State allowed Minnesota’s Philip Nelson to run for 40 yards and Ohio State’s Braxton Miller to run for 68, Armstrong should have opportunities to make plays with his legs.
Expect a close one between these two teams on Saturday afternoon. Nebraska’s offense is limited with quarterback Tommy Armstrong still learning on the job, and Penn State’s defense ranks ninth in Big Ten-only games. Whichever team can get its rushing game on track, while limiting turnovers will have a slight edge. The Nittany Lions are 3-0 at home in Big Ten play this year, but an improving Cornhusker defense is just enough to give Bo Pelini’s team a slight edge.
Prediction: Nebraska 27, Penn State 24