Nebraska is running the football like it’s the mid-1990s.
For those unfamiliar with the pre-Big Ten Cornhuskers, this means forceful blocks and slick cuts might lead to double-digit victories and a major bowl appearance.
Penn State’s shot at slowing the conference newbie arrives today at Memorial Stadium.
The reward is high for the home team. Nebraska (7-2, 4-1 Big Ten) moves a step closer to winning the Legends Division and reaching next month’s Big Ten title game with a victory. Next month’s winner qualifies for the Rose Bowl, an extravagant event the Cornhuskers are trying to reach in their second Big Ten season.
Let the spoiler stretch of Penn State’s schedule begin.
After they leave Lincoln, Neb., Indiana and Wisconsin, contenders for the Leaders Division title, visit the Nittany Lions (6-3, 4-1). Penn State is ineligible to play beyond the Wisconsin game because of NCAA sanctions and it appears there’s a subtle ban on discussing other teams’ bowl hopes around the Lasch Building.
“I don’t go into the team meeting today, and say, ‘Hey, look these guys are fighting for the Rose Bowl,’” coach Bill O’Brien said. “I go in and say, ‘Look, guys, this is what they do offensively, defensively, special teams-wise.’”
The Nittany Lions’ defensive objectives are succinct.
They must stop the run to prevail.
Their run defense has been dominant in conference road games, holding Illinois, Iowa and Purdue to a combined 181 rushing yards on 71 carries. Nebraska junior quarterback Taylor Martinez surpassed that total last week, rushing for 205 yards against Michigan State, which entered the game as the conference’s top rushing defense.
Big Ten aficionados were startled by the following statistic: Nebraska rushed for 313 yards, including 211 in the first half, against the Spartans. Some nasty players occupy spots along Michigan State’s defensive front.
Penn State’s front seven has cultivated similar talent.
But Ohio State and talented dual-threat quarterback Braxton Miller partially dinged the group’s pride last month, rushing for 234 yards. The unit rebounded nicely last week at Purdue.
Martinez, whose graceful strides resemble those of an elite mid-distance runner, and Nebraska’s offense poses challenges comparable to the ones Penn State faced against Ohio State.
“I would say they are similar in a lot of ways,” linebacker Michael Mauti said. “Both have different wrinkles that separate themselves from each other. But, overall, two very good offenses. We are going to have a challenge this week containing Martinez and that offensive line has some big boys.”
The Cornhuskers average a conference-best 269.6 rushing yards per game.
Their stable of healthy backs includes sophomore Ameer Abdullah and freshman Imani Cross. Senior Rex Burkhead, who rushed for 1,300 yards last year, has missed four games because of a sprained MCL in his knee.
Nebraska coach Bo Pelini described Burkhead’s status as “day-to-day” earlier this week.
High-octane rushing attacks are nothing new at Nebraska. Legendary coach Tom Osborne’s final team in 1997, after all, averaged 392.6 rushing yards per game.
The numbers are difficult to comprehend, especially after examining this year’s effective running game.
Follow Guy Cipriano on Twitter @cdtguy.