Opponent Preview: Penn State
Nebraska travels east this weekend as the Huskers prepare for their final road game of the regular season on Saturday against the Penn State Nittany Lions.
Kickoff is set for 2:30 p.m. and the game will be televised by BTN. Huskers.com is giving fans a closer look at Penn State, who is looking to defeat Nebraska for the first time in three tries as Big Ten Conference foes.
Scouting Penn State
Penn State is coming off a 45-21 win over Purdue last weekend, and the Nittany Lions bring a 6-4 overall record into Saturday’s game. PSU is 3-3 in Big Ten Conference play.
Nebraska and Penn State are similar teams on paper. Both teams have defeated Illinois, Michigan and Purdue this season and both teams have also lost at Minnesota. Statistically, Penn State averages 435 yards of total offense, just six yards fewer than Nebraska. Defensively, the Nittany Lions allow 376 yards per game, only two yards more than the Huskers. Both teams have also struggled with turnovers, as Penn State ranks 99th nationally with an average turnover margin per game of -0.6, while Nebraska is 111th at -0.8.
While the teams match up statistically in yards gains and yards allowed, Penn State hasn’t been successful as Nebraska in scoring offense or scoring defense. The Nittany Lions average 29 points per game, six fewer than Nebraska. Defensively, Penn State is surrendering an average of 27 points per game, two more than Nebraska.
The PSU offense is led by freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg, one of the nation’s top recruits last year. The Big Ten’s third-leading passer, Hackenberg has thrown for 2,399 yards this season, completing 59 percent of his passes for 14 touchdowns and nine interceptions. One of Hackenberg’s favorite targets has been All-America candidate Allen Robinson. Robinson leads the Big Ten with 81 catches and 1,204 receiving yards. He has caught 16 more passes than any other Big Ten receiver while averaging 120.4 receiving yards per contest.
On the ground, the duo of Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak have combined for 1,521 rushing yards this fall. Belton has rushed for 796 yards and five touchdowns on one more carry than Zwinak, while Zwinak has rushed for 725 yards and a team-high 12 touchdowns, one off the Big Ten lead.
Defensively, Penn State ranks in the top five in the conference and among the top 45 teams nationally in sacks and tackles for loss. Defensive tackle DaQuan Jones is tied for fourth in the league with 11.5 TFLs this fall, while defensive end C.J. Olaniyan leads PSU with 4.0 sacks.
Penn State has also been a disciplined team this season. The Nittany Lions are penalized only 33 yards per game this season, the fewest of any Big Ten team and the ninth-fewest penalty yards of any team in the nation.
Nebraska leads the all-time series with Penn State, 8-7. The Huskers have won three straight in the series, including each of the two matchups as Big Ten Conference foes. The 19th-ranked Huskers upset No. 12 Penn State, 17-14, in State College in 2011. Last year in Lincoln, 18th-ranked rallied from a 14-point halftime deficit to defeat Penn State, 32-23. Saturday’s game will snap a streak of nine consecutive meetings dating back to 1979 where either Nebraska, Penn State or both teams were ranked at kickoff.
Neither team has won more than three straight games in the series, and Nebraska will be going for its fourth straight victory on Saturday. Penn State owns a 5-2 record in State College.
Penn State Head Coach Bill O’Brien
Bill O’Brien is in his second season at Penn State, his first head coaching job. He owns a 14-8 record at PSU, including an 0-1 mark against Nebraska. Despite facing NCAA sanctions that include reduced scholarships, O’Brien guided the Nittany Lions to an 8-4 record in 2012, although Penn State did not advance to a bowl game due to its NCAA sanctions. PSU is 6-4 in 2013, with three of its losses coming to top-25 opponents.
Before taking the Penn State job in January of 2012, O’Brien had spent five years in the NFL. He was with the New England Patriots from 2007 to 2011, ending his stint with the Patriots as offensive coordinator in 2011. Previously, he had coached both New England’s quarterbacks and wide receivers.
O’Brien began his coaching career in the collegiate ranks at Brown, his alma mater, in 1993 and 1994. He coached at Georgia Tech from 1995 to 2002, before coaching at Maryland in 2003 and 2004 and Duke in 2005 and 2006.