What to watch for

Prior to the Big Ten announcing its revamped schedule and nine-game regular season, almost nobody anticipated this matchup to be between teams searching for their first wins.

Yet here we are, as both Nebraska and Penn State enter Saturday’s Husker home opener winless. Nebraska is coming off a gut-wrenching 21-13 defeat to Northwestern in which the Husker offense was unable to capitalize on offensive opportunities deep in the Wildcat half of the field.

Penn State, meanwhile, is a program in disarray. Believe it or not, the Nittany Lions were the No. 8 team in the country before their season-opening defeat at Indiana. Head coach James Franklin’s squad has been reeling since, with the most recent defeat being a 35-19 loss to Maryland — the Terrapins’ third win over Penn State in 43 tries. 

Saturday not only marks the first meeting between the programs since 2017, but also presents a critical get-right spot for both Nebraska and Penn State. The victorious team will surely feel a lot better about its chances moving forward, while the losing team could be in for a long second half of the season.

Here are some things to watch for in what should be a very competitive Big Ten showdown.

Scoring trends for both sides

A deeper dive into Penn State’s losses shows one glaring problem: the Nittany Lions have been horrible in the first half of games.

The Nittany Lions have failed to score more than seven points in the first half of their three games thus far, and have been outscored a combined 66-20 in the first 30 minutes in losses to Indiana, Ohio State and Maryland.

In the second half, Franklin’s team has kicked it up a notch. Penn State outscored its opponents 59-43 in the second half and overtime of the Nittany Lions’ three regular season games, but so far, it hasn’t been enough to come out on top.

Last Saturday’s game against Maryland perfectly exemplifies the Nittany Lions’ Jekyll and Hyde performances from half to half. The Terrapins were able to race out to a 28-7 halftime lead by outgaining the Nittany Lions 335 to 144 yards. In the second half, Penn State had the upper hand, as it gained 290 total yards to Maryland’s 70.

The Nittany Lions were unable to significantly cut Maryland’s lead in the second half even with the upper hand in offensive production, as they mustered 12 points to Maryland’s seven.

Conversely, Nebraska has struggled in the second half of games so far, although it’s not for a lack of yardage. Despite being on par with the Buckeyes in second half yardage in the season opener and outgaining Northwestern in the second half last weekend, the Huskers have little to show for it on the scoreboard.

Opponents are outscoring the Huskers a combined 42-3 in the final two quarters of both of Nebraska’s games — the lone score being a 22-yard field goal by senior kicker Connor Culp in the season-opener with the game already out of reach. The Huskers are also much more turnover-prone in second halves, with four total compared to no first-half giveaways

Nebraska has proven it can start games strong, but has problems finishing them. Meanwhile, Franklin’s Nittany Lions have a propensity to claw their way back into games after starting slowly. No matter what the score is at halftime, neither team can get comfortable.

Penn State’s quarterback rotation

It looks as if Nebraska won’t be the only team playing multiple quarterbacks on Saturday.

Franklin decided that Penn State’s No. 84 scoring offense in the country was in need of a spark after another lackluster offensive performance against Maryland.

On Tuesday, Franklin announced that junior quarterback Sean Clifford would remain the Nittany Lions’ starting quarterback. However, he also announced that redshirt sophomore quarterback Will Levis will spell Clifford at certain points in the game against the Huskers and throughout the rest of the season to, “help [Clifford] out.” 

Clifford started every game he was healthy enough to play in for Penn State last year and the first three games of this year, but has been subpar thus far. He has thrown for 859 yards and nine touchdowns thus far, which puts him on pace to match or better his statistics from last year in both categories in at least three fewer games. 

However, he’s also been woefully inaccurate, completing 56.6% of his passes — a lower clip than last year’s 59.2%. Clifford has also tossed five interceptions this season, and threw seven all of last season.

Levis looks to boost the offense following Clifford’s 27-of-57, three-touchdown, two-interception performance against the Terrapins. The 6-foot-3, 222-pounder saw significant action in 2019, filling in for an injured Clifford against Ohio State and starting the following week against Rutgers. In total, Levis appeared in six games in 2019.

He performed admirably given the circumstances in Penn State’s loss to the Buckeyes, running 18 times for 34 yards and a touchdown while completing 6-of-11 passes for 54 yards and an interception. Levis had much more success against the Scarlet Knights, rushing 18 times for 104 yards and completing 8-of-14 passes for 57 yards with a touchdown and an interception in a 27-6 Penn State win.  

Levis is a physical runner but also has a capable arm. Nebraska will need to be on its toes in order to slow down both quarterbacks on Saturday. 

Nebraska’s self-inflicted wounds

If Nebraska wants to beat Penn State, it first has to stop beating itself.

The Huskers’ 0-2 start has featured drive-killing penalties, poor red zone execution and devastating turnovers. All three were on full display last Saturday against Northwestern, as Nebraska moved within the Wildcat 30-yard line on eight different occasions, but came away with just 13 points.

Two of those drives ended in interceptions, both of which were in the second half. Junior quarterback Adrian Martinez threw an ill-advised interception in the end zone, preventing the Huskers from a shot at the lead late in the third quarter. 

With Nebraska trailing by eight late in the fourth quarter, redshirt freshman quarterback Luke McCaffrey drove the Huskers down to the Northwestern 4-yard line. On second-and-goal, McCaffrey’s pass deflected off a Husker offensive lineman and floated right into the hands of a Northwestern defender. 

McCaffrey led one final drive in an effort to tie the game, but it ultimately stalled at the Northwestern 14-yard line as time expired. 

Additionally, Nebraska has been heavily penalized in both of its games this season. The Huskers average 72.5 penalty yards per game, the third-worst mark in the Big Ten and No. 104 mark in the country. Penalties, turnovers and poor offensive execution is the perfect recipe for a winless start, and head coach Scott Frost acknowledged that the Huskers must be more disciplined going forward.

“We didn’t play disciplined enough, it’s inexcusable that we only had 13 points in that game,” Frost said after the Northwestern game. “I told [the team] it’s my fault, it’s on me … Discipline in this program starts with me and the coaches, and we made too many mistakes against a good team.”

If Nebraska wants to pick up its first win of the season, it has to turn in a much sharper performance as a whole. Penn State is certainly a beatable opponent, but the Huskers have to play a complete 60 minutes to emerge victorious.

sports@dailynebraskan.com