There hasn’t been much to cheer about for the Big Ten this year, especially with the conference’s best team (Ohio State) ineligible to play for the postseason. The Big Ten is also struggling to get enough teams eligible to fill its bowl slots and needs Indiana and Minnesota to get to six wins. Although the conference has been dealing with a bad reputation nationally, the race to win the Big Ten has been entertaining. The Legends Division appears to have some clarity with Nebraska and Michigan taking the top spot, while Wisconsin and Indiana are atop the Leaders Division.
With last week’s win over Michigan State in East Lansing, Nebraska has wrestled control of the Legends Division away from Michigan. The Cornhuskers are tied with the Wolverines for first place but own the head-to-head tiebreaker. Michigan still has to play Ohio State, so Nebraska has some cushion in the standings. However, the Cornhuskers can’t afford to take any opponent lightly the next three weeks.
These two teams have met 14 times, with only one meeting as conference mates. Nebraska has a two-game winning streak in this series and has won three out of the last four matchups against Penn State.
Storylines to Watch in Penn State vs. Nebraska
Taylor Martinez vs. Penn State’s defense
With four new starters taking over this season, the secondary was expected to be a work in progress for Penn State. However, the Nittany Lions’ secondary has exceeded expectations, allowing 211 yards per game and ranking 22nd nationally in pass efficiency defense. This unit will be tested on Saturday against a Nebraska passing attack that ranks fifth in the Big Ten. Quarterback Taylor Martinez has been a different player at home, throwing for 12 touchdowns and one interception at home and six touchdowns and seven picks on the road. Martinez has the Big Ten’s best receiving corps at his disposal, which will test Penn State’s secondary. In addition to his arm, the junior quarterback is a difficult matchup for the Nittany Lions on the ground. He has rushed for 666 yards and eight touchdowns this year, including 205 yards in the win over Michigan State. Mobile quarterbacks have given Penn State some trouble, as they allowed 134 rushing yards to Braxton Miller and 47 yards on nine carries to Ohio’s Tyler Tettleton. Martinez is going to make a few plays, but Penn State needs to keep him contained in the pocket and limit the opportunities for runs on the outside.
Penn State’s rush offense vs. Nebraska’s rush defense
Even though Nebraska’s run defense has experienced a few bright spots, it’s still a concern for coach Bo Pelini. The Cornhuskers gave up 238 rushing yards to Michigan State last week and 180 to Northwestern on Nov. 20. Penn State is averaging 140.2 yards per game on the ground but has at least 160 rushing yards in three out of its last four games. The Nittany Lions average 3.6 yards per carry, which figures to be an easier test for the Cornhuskers than taking on Michigan State’s Le’Veon Bell. Penn State running back Zach Zwinak played well in last week’s win over Purdue, rushing for 134 yards on 21 attempts. Zwinak, Bill Belton and Michael Zordich aren’t the nation’s best trio but have been a solid development for this offense. Considering the struggles of Nebraska’s front seven against the run, this is one area Penn State could exploit on Saturday.
Matt McGloin vs. Nebraska’s secondary
There’s no doubt McGloin is one of the Big Ten’s most improved players this season. The senior has thrived under new coach Bill O’Brien, throwing for 2,436 yards and 18 touchdowns. McGloin also ranks fifth in the Big Ten in passing efficiency but faces a Nebraska secondary ranked fifth against the pass. The Cornhuskers have allowed 11 passing scores but opponents are completing just 46 percent of their passes. McGloin has been steady and most importantly, has done a good job of taking care of the ball. For Penn State to win this game, he has to continue playing mistake-free ball, while finding ways to move the ball through the air against this secondary.
Nebraska can move one step closer to claiming the Legends Division title with a win over Penn State. The Cornhuskers still have some work to do, but the Nittany Lions might be their biggest hurdle the rest of the way. Penn State is 3-0 in Big Ten road games this season but playing in Nebraska is its toughest matchup away from Happy Valley so far. New coach Bill O’Brien has the Nittany Lions playing well, but Nebraska will edge Penn State for the victory. The Cornhuskers may not have running back Rex Burkhead back for his week’s game, but Ameer Abdullah has three consecutive 100-yard efforts. Quarterback Taylor Martinez has been a different player in Lincoln and should be able to make a few plays on Penn State’s secondary. This one will be closer than some expect, but Nebraska moves closer to a division title with a victory over the Nittany Lions.
Final Prediction: Nebraska 27, Penn State 24
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