Drake Keeler, senior sports editor: Penn State 38, Nebraska 30
I’m just not at the point where I can trust Nebraska to win this game.
It’s a tempting pick. Penn State is struggling, and Nebraska should be able to put up a challenge. The Nittany Lions have given up over 35 points in each of their three games so far this season. They also have seven turnovers through these three games, which is an area that has been key for Nebraska’s defense through head coach Scott Frost’s tenure. On top of all that, it is the first home game for the Huskers.
However, I just can’t see it happening. To be honest, I see this game looking something like Nebraska’s loss to Indiana in 2019.
Although there are obviously key differences, 2019 Indiana and 2020 Penn State are somewhat similar. Last year, the Hoosiers were a pass-heavy team that was 2-2 in Big Ten play going into the matchup with Nebraska. Those two wins were against Rutgers and Maryland, both of which were at the bottom of the conference. Indiana gave up 91 combined points in losses to Ohio State and Michigan State, along with giving up 28 points against the Terrapins.
Penn State averages 40.7 pass attempts per game, while Indiana averaged 38.5 in its first four Big Ten games last year. Against Nebraska, then-Indiana junior quarterback Peyton Ramsey had 393 total yards and three touchdowns. Junior wide receiver Whop Philyor had 178 receiving yards and a touchdown. This year, I think the junior duo of quarterback Sean Clifford and wide receiver Jahan Dotson will do something similar.
This comparison isn’t as perfect on the defensive side, but I don’t see either defense having a huge impact outside of forcing a turnover or two each.
Penn State will make enough mistakes for Nebraska to stay close throughout, but no matter who is at quarterback, the Huskers will come up short once again.
Landon Wirt, assistant sports editor: Penn State 31, Nebraska 20
This was not supposed to be the most winnable game of Nebraska football’s four-game gauntlet to open the season.
But it seems nothing can go according to plan in the 2020 college football season — one canceled game and two losses later, the Huskers find themselves at 0-2 entering Saturday’s home opener with Penn State.
The Nittany Lions, arguably, are in worse form. If not for the strange storylines taking place across the country, more eyes would be focused on Penn State’s shocking 0-3 start. Head coach James Franklin’s team has been plagued by poor first-half performances, terrible secondary play and a struggling running attack.
If Nebraska is to pick up its first win, it needs another solid performance from the front seven. The formula for beating the Nittany Lions is to stifle sophomore running back Devyn Ford and force junior quarterback Sean Clifford to make plays with his arm. Ford has been nearly nonexistent in Penn State’s most recent two losses, as early deficits have forced Clifford to throw more in an effort to come back.
Redshirt freshman Ty Robinson and sophomore linebacker Luke Reimer, both of whom had great games last Saturday against Northwestern, will be tasked with silencing all aspects of the Nittany Lion ground attack. As of Tuesday, that attack will now include Penn State backup quarterback Will Levis, a sophomore who will see action against Nebraska in order to spell Clifford, according to Franklin.
Levis is a run-first quarterback that should present a different look for the Blackshirts, something Nebraska defensive coordinator Erik Chinander must be aware of. If Nebraska is able to slow down Clifford, who rushed for 119 yards against Indiana, along with Levis and Ford, it has a good chance to knock off Penn State.
Ultimately, this game will come down to Nebraska’s quarterback play. Penn State is the most beatable secondary that Nebraska’s offense has faced thus far, allowing 256.7 yards per game — the No. 87 mark in the country. Whether or not junior quarterback Adrian Martinez or redshirt freshman quarterback Luke McCaffrey will be able to take advantage of a weak secondary will be the story of Saturday’s game.
It will be exciting to get an in-person look at both teams on Saturday, but it’s incredibly difficult to see Penn State dropping this one and moving to 0-4. I’ll back the more experienced Clifford and Levis and an improved Penn State defensive effort to get by the Huskers.
Jason Han, assistant sports editor: Penn State 27, Nebraska 30
Lots of doom and gloom from these other two, huh? Well, there is reason to believe that Nebraska will be able to pull out a win, even if the odds are significantly against it.
On the more emotional side of things, Penn State was a team going into the season with high expectations, and has almost catastrophically underperformed them. This kind of shock for what is one of the Big Ten’s premier programs can warrant a complete freefall as the season progresses.
This being said, this possible freefall isn’t an objective metric, and there’s far more reason looking at the numbers to believe Penn State could roll the Huskers come Saturday. For one, Penn State is pass-heavy, and junior quarterback Sean Clifford has thrown nine touchdowns through three games this season.
This is up against the Nebraska secondary, which gave up 20 completions off of 21 attempts against junior quarterback Justin Fields and Ohio State and a further two touchdowns against senior quarterback Peyton Ramsey and the Northwestern offense. While the former is understandable, it’s harder to justify the latter.
The Nebraska secondary has been dysfunctional at best this season, and without some major scheme change, some weird twist of fate or otherwise, one could see Penn State destroying Nebraska through the air. So, this game may become a shootout fairly early on. While the data is limited, this would not appear to benefit the Huskers, as the Ohio State game ought to show.
So, Nebraska appears outmatched in a key area going into this week’s game. As said, there’s little reason to believe numbers-wise that anything good will happen.
Relying purely on the numbers in this case, however, may not quite be prudent. Previous success is not necessarily an indicator of any future success, and emotionally, Penn State looked broken last week against Maryland. And, from a more objective point of view, there simply haven’t been enough data points yet to establish clear trends from any team.