The Penn State Nittany Lions close the books on their 2017 home schedule this weekend by trying to do something they have never done before — beat Nebraska in a Big Ten conference game. The final game in Beaver Stadium this season will be a chance to shower the seniors with praise as they play their final downs in a blue Penn State jersey in State College, but there is still work to be done with so much still on the line.
Penn State may not be playing for a spot in the College Football Playoff or the Big Ten championship this season, but the Nittany Lions must keep their foot on the gas pedal to get to a New Year's Six bowl game, which looks more and more likely so long as they avoid getting tripped up this week or next.
The fate of the season for this week's opponent is much more gloomy. Nebraska makes a third trip to Pennsylvania since joining the Big Ten in hopes of finding a way to salvage a win just to get to a postseason bowl game. Coming off a blowout loss at Minnesota, things are not looking great for Nebraska and head coach Mike Riley. Are the Cornhuskers in for a long afternoon in Happy Valley? It could turn out that way.
Nebraska at Penn State
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 18 at 4 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FS1
Spread: Penn State -26.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Penn State finally spring Saquon Barkley?
There is a very good chance this could be the final home game for Barkley. The season may have tailed off in terms of his production as defenses have sold out to stop the dynamic running back at all costs, and taking advantage of the Nittany Lions' weakness on the offensive line, but he remains one of the top ball carriers in the country. This may be a good week for a big showing from Barkley, because Nebraska just gave up 409 rushing yards to Minnesota last week. If Penn State can't get a 100-yard performance in the running game out of Barkley, the Nittany Lions should be ashamed.
2. Nebraska planning to go with Patrick O'Brien at QB
Nebraska is practicing this week under the assumption they will be using O'Brien as their starting quarterback. The freshman would be playing in his fifth game of the season and would be replacing junior Tanner Lee. Lee entered the concussion protocol this week, leaving him questionable at best to play Saturday. Lee has not been ruled out by head coach Mike Riley just yet, but the Cornhuskers have no other choice but to prepare as if O'Brien will be running the offense. This would be O'Brien's first career start, and the setting alone will be a challenge to overcome.
3. Nebraska is 3-0 vs. Penn State in Big Ten play
Nebraska left the Big 12 to join the Big Ten in 2011, and the conference immediately worked out the schedule so Nebraska and Penn State would play annually. That plan was short-lived following another expansion to add Maryland and Rutgers, which did away with the Nebraska-Penn State annual series. So it's been a long time coming for Penn State to get in the win column against the Cornhuskers as Big Ten foes. This will be the fourth meeting between the two storied programs, yet this will be the third trip Nebraska has made to Happy Valley. This also will be the first time Penn State is decidedly the far superior team on paper, so it looks likely the Nittany Lions will bring that streak to an end, while James Franklin will be able to say he has beaten every team in the conference since taking the job in 2015.
Penn State should be able to thrive with big plays on offense thanks to Trace McSorley, DaeSean Hamilton, and Mike Gesicki on top of having Saquon Barkley. This is a bit of a statement game for Penn State, and it could help solidify Barkley as a Heisman Trophy finalist, even if the idea of winning the trophy has faded over the last month. A shot at playing in a New Year's Six bowl game is in reach thanks to the latest playoff rankings, and Nebraska could be ready to just pack it up, call it a year and turn the page to 2018. Nebraska is ripe for the picking, and Penn State needs to set the tone early and often to make that the case. Penn State should roll in this one.
Prediction: Penn State 45, Nebraska 17
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and The Comeback as well as hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.