Big Ten teams in desperate need of a win meet in Lincoln
When the Nebraska Cornhuskers' freshly-revised 2020 schedule was handed down, the team was given largely the same gauntlet they originally expected. The difference was they'd be beginning the season against those opponents versus ending it with them. The Huskers now face a winless Penn State Nittany Lions team that has struggles of their own. In fact, the last time these teams met without a victory to their credit was in the inaugural Kickoff Classic to begin the 1983 season.
This series goes all the way back to 1920 when the Nittany Lions bested the Huskers 20-0. It's been tightly-contested ever since with the Big Red holding a slight 9-8 advantage (3-1 in Big Ten play).
The good news for both of these teams is that one of them has to win... in theory. Let's not challenge the wrath of 2020. Can Scott Frost's offense get its wheels out of the mud and find a proper footing? Will Sean Clifford baffle the Blackshirts with both his arm and legs?
Let's break it down.
Penn State at Nebraska
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 14 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Penn State -3.5
When Penn State Has the Ball
All things considered, Nebraska handled Northwestern's Peyton Ramsey about as well as they could. However, Clifford is on another level when it comes to efficiency. His most recent effort versus Maryland was a low point. But his play against two current top-10 teams (Ohio State and Indiana) showed the type of ability that can knock the Blackshirts for a loop.
He completed 64.6 percent of his passes against Indiana and Ohio State and threw for a combined 519 yards and six touchdowns. However, he also handed over three interceptions, and, as we saw versus the Wildcats, the Big Red has ballhawks in the secondary.
At running back, Devyn Ford has filled in as well as he could following injuries to those in front of him on the depth chart and Ricky Slade's transfer to Old Dominion. He's seen single-digit carries and totaled 72 yards rushing over the past two games. What's concerning for Nebraska is Northwestern still managed chunk plays on the ground despite the absence of Isaiah Bowser.
If the likes of Cam Taylor-Britt, Dicaprio Bootle, and the other Blackshirt defensive backs can clamp down on wide receivers Jahan Dotson and Parker Washington, they give Frost's offense every chance to succeed. As seen against the Wildcats, Nebraska's defense can be picked apart by a properly-utilized tight end. Watch for Pat Freiermuth to get a few balls thrown his way.
When Nebraska Has the Ball
Who starts at quarterback for the Huskers is only one of the biggest factors that will decide the outcome. How long of a leash that person has is the other. If Martinez takes the field first for a third consecutive game and struggles, how much time is Frost willing to give him before opting for Luke McCaffrey? If McCaffrey gets the starting nod, this would likely indicate a passing of the torch barring an absolute meltdown on his behalf.
Skill players aren't a concern. Ryan Held's running back room is well-stocked while Matt Lubick's wide receivers are versatile and pose several challenges. Once it's established which signal-caller they need to sync up with, attention shifts to an offensive line that has switched up early on.
While so-so in run blocking versus Northwestern, they performed well in pass protection. However, each member had a penalty to their credit. No matter who any team plays, that's unacceptable.
No one player can make a defense. But it's indisputable once Micah Parsons decided to opt out and focus on his NFL career, PSU took a hit not just defensively but overall in terms of energy and leadership. However, Nebraska still faces several challenges when taking on the Nittany Lions' front seven, including defensive lineman Shaka Toney and linebacker Brandon Smith. The secondary can be schemed around, but taking safety Lamont Wade out of the picture often is key.
On paper, this is truly a clash of the stoppable force versus the moveable object. Getting into the nitty-gritty of what results in a win or a loss, while Nebraska does gift the ball to its opponents with a negative-one turnover margin, Penn State does it more often (-5). The Nittany Lions aren't the most disciplined team, racking up 52 penalty yards per game, but the Huskers certainly haven't played that way either (72.5).
Honestly, either team could win. What probably decides who is Frost's quarterback decisions. Both Martinez and McCaffrey are a roll of the dice. However, one is a junior, the other is a redshirt freshman. Despite similar stat lines last week, the former is trending downward while the latter appears to be moving in the opposite direction.
Regardless of whether or not No. 2 takes the field first, considering the evidence we have regarding his play, it's tough to see him finish. And if that decision is made early enough, Nebraska definitely has a shot to triumph.
As this is the final contest of the Huskers' most difficult stretch, Frost may choose to give Martinez one last chance to sink or swim. If another Big Red loss can be tied back to his performance, going with McCaffrey for the remainder seems all but a given. Considering Martinez's body of work, his backup likely gets into the game — but too late to pull out the victory. That said, he can prepare Nebraska for a good back end run to finish out 2020 as Martinez did in '18.
Prediction: Penn State 30, Nebraska 24
Podcast: Week 11 Preview and Predictions