Nebraska’s first home game comes against a Penn State team that was ranked No. 8 before the season started and was expected to compete for the Big Ten title. Both schools are at a crossroads in their seasons, and the quarterback position is a key part of that. As of now, Nebraska has not named a starter while Penn State is still rolling with junior Sean Clifford.
Clifford and Martinez have both been inaccurate, with completion percentages of 56.6% and 57.1% which rank 11th and 12th in the Big Ten, respectively. The two have proven their ability to make plays with their legs but both quarterbacks are looking to retain their spot on the depth chart.
At Penn State, head coach James Franklin wants to work sophomore quarterback Will Levis more into the quarterback rotation.
In Nebraska, that change already happened. Redshirt freshman quarterback Luke McCaffrey replaced junior quarterback Adrian Martinez in last week’s Northwestern game and with Frost singing the praises of both quarterbacks, there is no clear starter heading into Saturday.
“I still believe we have two really good players,” head coach Scott Frost said in a Thursday press conference. “Both guys have been competing for that and practicing to get there. We’ll make a decision.’’
The Nittany Lions passing offense remains potent. One thing they have used to their advantage are explosive pass plays, which are plays that gain 20 or more yards. Penn State has hit 16 such plays, second-most in the Big Ten behind Michigan.
Despite the tremendous strides made in stopping the run, the Blackshirts have had a tough time stopping the pass game this season. Against Ohio State, junior quarterback Justin Fields was near-perfect, and senior quarterback Peyton Ramsey’s second half helped propel Northwestern past Nebraska after a poor first two quarters.
Ramsey went 10-for-14 with 118 yards and two touchdowns in the second half of the Wildcats’ 21-13 victory. The Nittany Lions receiving corps has two pass-catchers expected to play at the next level in senior tight end Pat Freiermuth and junior wide receiver Jahan Dotson.
Dotson tracks the ball well and has an incredible catch radius, two reasons why he’s the Big Ten leader in receiving touchdowns and yards. Dotson and Freiermuth are a nightmare duo, but Nebraska’s best chance to stop the two is to stop whoever’s throwing.
Nebraska’s front seven has done well against the run but getting consistent pressure on the quarterback has been hard at times. A weaker Nittany Lion offensive line can help the Nebraska front seven generate pressure, as Penn State has given up 12 sacks and averaged 2.1 yards per carry over the last two weeks. The team’s offensive line has struggled immensely so far this season, but mobile quarterbacks can mask some of those problems.
What Clifford and Levis both bring to the table is their legs, which the Huskers will have to key on to prevent either quarterback from scrambling or extending plays. The Husker secondary has struggled, but pressuring the quarterback makes life easier for both the front seven and the secondary.
Like Penn State, Nebraska’s quarterbacks also have punished defenses on the ground. If the Nittany Lion defense is to have success on Saturday, they will need to keep Martinez or McCaffrey inside the pocket and make either quarterback beat them with his arm.
Nebraska’s offensive focus will be on finishing drives consistently. The Husker offense scored only one touchdown on six red zone trips last Saturday against Northwestern. Penn State’s defense appears to be stellar against the run but shows massive holes in pass defense.
The last two games, Penn State’s pass defense has fallen to 10th in the Big Ten despite giving up only 170 passing yards and 4.72 yards per attempt to Michael Penix in the Indiana loss. In the last two games, quarterbacks have completed 73% of their throws, thrown for 600 total yards, seven touchdowns, no interceptions and averaged 10 yards per attempt.
One struggle for Penn State’s defense has been the loss of linebacker Micah Parsons, a projected first round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. Parsons is athletic enough to pressure the quarterback or cover, whether in man or zone. His loss has neutralized some blitzes and let Maryland and Ohio State target the middle of the field more often.
Maryland hit the middle of the field on two long first quarter touchdowns to freshman wide receiver Rakim Jarrett. Jarrett ran free in part because Penn State’s linebacker blitzes were stopped by Maryland, something Parson’s presence may have changed.
On Saturday, Martinez or McCaffrey could get easy completions by using the middle third of the field instead of looking to the outside. The loss of Parsons along with a suspect secondary can get Nebraska’s new receivers going, something that hasn’t happened through the first two games.
“We’re bringing those guys along as fast as we can. I think they’re all talented guys,” Frost said. “Every week, they’re learning more, getting better, getting more detail and getting more reps. We’ll keep trying to integrate those guys as much as they’re ready to.
This is the game where Nebraska’s new receiver corps can make a difference and can tackle the issue of finishing in the red zone. It’s a chance to exploit a weaker linebacker corps and also be able to get yards back on second-and-long or convert third-and-longs, an area where Nebraska has been bad in so far this season.
Nebraska and Penn State both have the opportunity to bounce back from bad starts to the season. No matter who the starter is for either team, Nebraska’s quarterback play will need to stay consistent on Saturday and give the new receivers a chance to show why they came to Lincoln.
“All week, our team was frustrated that we didn’t get it done on Saturday,” Frost said. “I’ve been more frustrated than anyone else but I balance that with being very excited about the future.”