LINCOLN — The air will be cold, the field probably a bit wet, and, hey, it's the Big Ten in November. So Nebraska's defense isn't forgetting about Penn State's power, zone-based run game when the teams meet in Beaver Stadium Saturday.
It's simply that the Nittany Lions' passing attack — orchestrated by former New England Patriots offensive coordinator and current PSU head coach Bill O'Brien — has a way of being more memorable.
An array of formations. Tight ends everywhere. And a top-dog receiver in Allen Robinson, who's vying for All-America honors.
“Their passing attack is unique,” Nebraska safety Corey Cooper said. He was referring to how O'Brien uses multiple tight ends — sometimes out of a spread attack, sometimes in more pro-style bunch sets — to help give true freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg easy throws and big targets. Penn State's tight ends can fan out in separate directions, adjusting their routes to open spaces.
“We're going to have to do a good job with our backers matching them underneath, especially when they start getting into third-and-medium,” Husker defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. “Because they'll take the little Y option routes and just bang it in there.”
Tight ends Jesse James, Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman have combined to catch 45 passes for 453 yards and three touchdowns this season. James scored last year against the Huskers when a complex series of routes — run out of a no-huddle package — left him wide open and walking into the end zone. That was the play that triggered a heated discussion between NU coach Bo Pelini and safety Daimion Stafford.
Cooper said Nebraska has to line up well and communicate quickly to identify where those tight ends go. Nickel back Ciante Evans said the key is to be physical with those tight ends as much as allowable.
“Get your hands on them and try to slow them down,” Evans said. “I don't mind the challenge if I'm called to do it.”
Typically, the challenge will fall to Nebraska's linebackers. If NU chooses to keep its base personnel on the field when Penn State uses all of its tight ends, some combination of David Santos, Michael Rose, Zaire Anderson, Josh Banderas and Nate Gerry will get the assignments. The Huskers have at times used Gerry, a converted freshman safety, in more pass-obvious situations.
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Linebackers coach Ross Els compared Penn State's tight ends to post players in basketball.
“They basketball-you out,” Els said. “They just run down to the first down marker, turn around and they're so long. We're not big at linebacker. We've got to be able to put a body on a body and find a way to get that ball out of there.”
Els said Nebraska's scout team receivers — including freshman Greg Hart, a tight end/wide receiver whose 6-foot-5, 230-pound frame mirrors that of Penn State's athletes — have worked all week on the techniques the Nittany Lions use.
“We get a good look from those guys,” Els said. “Our quarterbacks have thrown them the ball well this week.”
On the outside, the 6-3, 210-pound Robinson — who leads the Big Ten with 81 catches and 1,204 yards — has a knack for rising above defenders and making catches against single or double coverage in traffic. The junior caught six passes for 97 yards against the Huskers last year. When Penn State's passing game bogged down in the second half of NU's 32-23 win, Robinson was the last threat still making plays.
“We've got to be aware of where he is all the time and make sure that we're matched up correctly and taking care of him because he's half their passing game,” Papuchis said.
Robinson is Penn State's top receiver on screens, Papuchis said. The Lions can use him on end-around plays. When Penn State tries to package routes together, they're usually designed to feature Robinson in a matchup that favors his big frame.
“If we take him out of the game, to a certain extent, that will go a long way in us winning,” Papuchis said.
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Video: Nebraska coach Bo Pelini after practice Thursday