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Two-Minute Drill: Key matchups that will decide Nebraska-Penn State
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FOOTBALL

Two-Minute Drill: Key matchups that will decide Nebraska-Penn State

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Scott Frost offered no clues as to who will start at quarterback for the Huskers.

Each week, the Two-Minute Drill provides an in-depth breakdown on all the key matchups that will decide a winner in the Husker game. Today we look at what Penn State brings to the showdown with Nebraska.

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WHEN NEBRASKA RUNS THE BALL

The Huskers are No. 2 in the Big Ten at 217 rushing yards per game, and No. 1 in the league in yards per carry at 5.49. Pretty good! And yet the yards often feel loose, attached as they are to quarterback scrambles and designed lead draw plays. NU has to find a way to get running back Dedrick Mills (3.0 yards per carry) more open space. Marvin Scott and Ronald Thompkins have flashed some talent, too. Could the Huskers work in Wan’Dale Robinson? Penn State’s run defense is often terrific and won’t bend easily. The linebackers are good, the defensive line is active and good at getting tackles for loss. Eventually, teams are going to take away the Huskers’ quarterback run game. EDGE: NEBRASKA

WHEN NEBRASKA THROWS THE BALL

Who’s the quarterback? Adrian Martinez or Luke McCaffrey? Martinez has the better arm and the penchant for a special throw — like the one he made to Austin Allen against Northwestern — but McCaffrey appears more confident as a decision-maker. While Nebraska decides who to start there, it also has to decide whether to put younger, more-talented receivers on the field over more-seasoned guys who haven’t shown a sweet tooth for big plays. Penn State’s pass defense is vulnerable — see two shockingly easy first-half touchdowns in Maryland’s 35-19 upset — but Nebraska has to scare somebody. And again, get Robinson involved. EDGE: PENN STATE

WHEN PENN STATE RUNS THE BALL 

The Nittany Lions want to blend a power/pro-style zone rushing game with play-action passes. So far they have not been able to get the run game untracked, averaging just 3.37 yards per carry. Quarterback Sean Clifford — who likes to run a little too much — carries the ball 17 times per game. Look for some of that load to shift to jumbo backup quarterback Will Levis (6-foot-3, 222 pounds) while Clifford gets some physical relief. Because of injuries and transfers, PSU is basically down to running back Devyn Ford. Nebraska’s run defense, aside for one bust against Northwestern, has held up OK. Let’s not be too eager to pat a team on the back for giving up 4.22 yards per carry — that’s in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten — but for now it looks better, especially in the way NU’s linebackers are playing. EDGE: NEBRASKA

WHEN PENN STATE THROWS THE BALL

PSU seems ripe for a breakthrough after struggling to protect Clifford in the first three games. Nebraska doesn’t have much of a pass rush unless it sends more defenders at the quarterback, but that puts its secondary in more danger. Penn State has the guys — Jahan Dotson, Pat Freiermuth — to make the Huskers pay for their aggression. While NU has an “intact” secondary with Cam Taylor-Britt and Deontai Williams available to start, they haven’t necessarily shown they can slow down a great passing game. Opponents have completed a whopping 81.8% of their passes in the second half. EDGE: PENN STATE

SPECIAL TEAMS

Nebraska has enough issues to fix on offense that few paid much attention to NU getting dominated in the third phase by Northwestern, which is not exactly a special teams juggernaut. The Huskers gave up a big kickoff return and a big punt return. The net punting average (33.8 yards) ranks 111th in college football. Nebraska’s return games have struggled too. Penn State kicker Jordan Stout is 100% on touchbacks, but other than that the Nittany Lions have struggled on special teams. PSU has made just 2 of 6 field goals, for example. EDGE: EVEN

INTANGIBLES

This game is about which team can better avoid mistakes, since both are prone to them. Nebraska’s quarterbacks are averaging two turnovers per game. PSU is minus-5 in turnover margin. Nebraska commits offensive line penalties like they’re going out of style. Penn State allows 4.5 sacks per game. Saturday may boil down to belief and execution. The Nittany Lions have more recent history to draw from in that area. EDGE: PENN STATE

KEY MATCHUP: NU'S FIRST-HALF OFFENSE VS. PSU'S FIRST-HALF DEFENSE

The Nittany Lions have had a weird, hard offseason because of COVID-19. Harder than Nebraska, because they lost their best player, linebacker Micah Parsons, when he opted out. Since then, the top running back, Journey Brown, retired due to a heart condition. The defense was stepped all over by Ohio State and Maryland in the first halves of those games, so if Nebraska can just come out of the chute fast, play hard and smart and take advantage of a morning start after PSU’s long plane flight, it could get stake a good lead. Penn State will come back — it's good at that — but Nebraska has to have a halftime lead. EDGE: NEBRASKA

OUR TAKE

This one’s tricky. Nebraska hasn’t won as an underdog in three years, but Penn State strikes us as a down-in-the-dumps favorite who could go south with one or two bad quarters. Are the Huskers ready to play their very best game at kickoff? Is McCaffrey ready for the adrenaline rush that comes with starting? Is Martinez fixing to resurrect the guy we used to see in 2018? Whether the Huskers win a lot or not this season, getting back to who they want to be — a fast, fun, wide-open offense — is important. A youth movement is OK. A boring youth movement is not. PENN STATE 28, NEBRASKA 24

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