Penn State football: 3 keys vs. Nebraska to avoid being the B1G's most miserable team
Penn State heads to Lincoln, Neb., faced with a pivotal inflection point. Win, and at the very least gain some positive momentum heading into the second half of the season, or lose, become just the second 0-4 team in the 134-year history of Penn State football, and risk losing all of the good graces established over the last 5 years.
It is truly a game of desperation. The Lions, however, won’t be alone in must-win ideology. Scott Frost and Nebraska have become the laughing stock of the Big Ten following the offseason drama of threatening to leave the conference and then being struck with arguably its hardest schedule.
The Cornhuskers are 0-2 after their Week 3 game against Wisconsin was canceled, and are 9-17 under Frost, who was hired to return the program to the glory of the days when he was the team’s QB in the mid-90s.
An 0-3 start for Nebraska would be disastrous, but an 0-4 Penn State start would be cataclysmic just a month removed from being ranked inside the AP Top 10. A Penn State vs. Nebraska matchup would be a primetime blockbuster in decades past, but now it just features a pair of programs taking on more water than they can bail.
These 3 factors will determine whether or not Penn State emerges from Lincoln with its first victory of 2020:
Run … but not with Clifford
It’s been no secret that Penn State’s passing game has struggled. So much so, James Franklin was peppered with questions all week about whether or not backup QB Will Levis would see more time moving forward. While Franklin dismissed the notion of benching Sean Clifford, he did say that Levis will be more involved.
“Will’s earned that, you know, over his time here, and obviously, we’ve used him in the past,” Franklin said. “So we need to do that and I think you’ll see that. I think you’ll see that moving forward, not just this week but for the rest of the season.”
This is potentially good news for the Penn State ground game given the history of Levis being used as a running back in the team’s “Lion” package, like how Tommy Stevens was used alongside Trace McSorley. Levis was used situationally against Indiana, but nothing productive came of his main two plays, which resulted in a delay penalty and him losing a fumble.
The real key for Penn State’s offense will actually be using the running backs to, you know, run the ball. Clifford has more carries (52) than backs Devyn Ford and Caziah Holmes have combined (51). While some of Clifford’s carries are the result of scrambles and sacks, the lack of dependence on any sort of ground game this year remains disconcerting.
While Holmes only averaged 3.2 yards a carry against Maryland, he had a few plays where he looked like a strong back capable of hitting the next level on a consistent basis and looks like could provide a nice complement to Ford.
Nebraska ranks 10th in the conference, allowing over 181 rushing yards a game. Penn State hasn’t eclipsed the 100-yard rushing mark in either of its past two games and averaged 1.6 yards a carry against Ohio State and 2.6 against Maryland.
Not only will a successful ground attack ease the pressure on Clifford, but it will keep a Lions’ defense that has shown some surprising warts off the field. At this point it may be time to return to the plan against Indiana that included holding on to the ball for over 40 minutes.
Make Nebraska beat you through the air
Much like Penn State, the Cornhuskers have a bit a of QB dilemma. Both Adrian Martinez and Luke McCaffrey have been inconsistent and are much more dangerous rushing the ball than they are passing, with Nebraska failing to pass for 220 yards in either of its losses.
The Cornhuskers, however, rank 2nd in the Big Ten when it comes to rushing, and it’s not in the traditional fashion. Martinez and McCaffrey account for over 72% of Nebraska’s rushing yardage. Among players with at least 15 carries in the Big Ten, McCaffrey and Martinez rank 3rd and 4th respectively at 7.6 and 7.2 yards per carry. Neither is afraid to run it out of the traditional QB position, but the Cornhuskers also like to line up McCaffrey in the tailback or wide receiver position to take the ball on sweeps.
While the Penn State pass rush has failed to generate much in the way of sacks, it has done a fair job of limiting three athletic quarterbacks to damage through the air and not with their legs.
Nebraska has shown an inability to pose much danger passing and hasn’t thrown a single touchdown this season. Until the Cornhuskers prove otherwise, the primary plan should be to load the box and force Martinez or McCaffrey to do something they have yet to do in 2020.
Offense, defense, special teams, it doesn’t matter how, just score first.
Penn State has only scored first once this year, the opening possession of the Indiana game, and coincidentally that was the only game it deserved to win.
Against Maryland and Ohio State, the Lions gave up plays of greater than 42 yards on their opposition’s opening drive. Both games it was clear that Penn State was going to need early momentum, and both times the team had the wind removed from its sails in the first 3 minutes.
Nebraska and Penn State’s seasons are both on disaster watch, and whichever team comes out with a pivotal, game-changing play first, might create for the opponent that last bit of pressure that blows out the dam, sending its season gushing away to the point of no return.
Penn State hasn’t generate a turnover since Week 1 or produced a big return on special teams all season. The defense has been gashed for 6 scoring plays of greater than 25 yards. Not exactly confidence-building stuff.
Franklin tends to defer when his captains win the opening coin toss, but it may be time to switch things up against Nebraska, take the ball and quickly remove any energy the Cornhuskers have left.