Penn State vs. Nebraska: Who has the edge?

November 23, 2013 

Quarterbacks

Tommy Armstrong Jr. will start his seventh game with Taylor Martinez (foot) watching from the sideline. Christian Hackenberg will make his 11th start. Armstrong isn’t asked to throw it as much in the Cornhuskers’ run-heavy approach. He hasn’t been that accurate when he has thrown as he’s completing just 53 percent of his passes. Armstrong’s turned the ball over, too, throwing seven interceptions to seven touchdowns. He is being intercepted once every 16 drop backs. Hackenberg continues to develop — he made some key throw-aways last week and took a few big shots to make throws. He doesn’t seem to be hitting any freshman wall as he continues to make throws down the field. Advantage: Penn State.

Running backs

This category could shape up to be quite a duel as both teams employ a pair of powerful, hard-running backs. While Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton have traded fumble issues back and forth, both have been equally effective at hitting holes and gaining yards after contact. Belton’s multicut approach is a perfect compliment to Zwinak’s pound-and-drag approach. Nebraska has an every-down back in Ameer Abdullah, the Big Ten’s leading rusher. Abdullah is averaging 134 yards per game and has seven touchdowns this season. Imani Cross is a bigger back who has 10 touchdowns, eight of those coming in the red zone. Abdullah has 39 carries of 10 yards or more and seventeen plays of 25-plus yards. Advantage: Nebraska.

Receivers/Tight ends

Quincy Enunwa (6-2, 225) provides Nebraska with a big target while Kenny Bell is a shifty speedster who is coming off a big game (7 catches for 81 yards and a touchdown) against Michigan State. Jordan Westerkamp and Sam Burtch also contribute for the Cornhuskers. Tight ends aren’t relied on to catch passes — they have just two catches over the last four games for Nebraska. Allen Robinson continues to soar for Penn State as each catch extends his multiple records. Geno Lewis played a physical game last week and also got involved in the passing game with three catches. After drops plagued him a few weeks ago, expect Brandon Felder to get more playing time. Adam Breneman continues to emerge. Advantage: Penn State.

Offensive line

Nebraska’s front five has been cooking all season. The Cornhuskers are averaging 240 yards per game and possess the Big Ten’s third-best running game. All five starters along the offensive line are starters. Tackles Brent Qvale and Jeremiah Sirles and guard Andrew Rodriguez are drawing looks from NFL scouts. Penn State’s “hogs” have turned the corner and paved the way for 243 yards per game over Penn State’s last three. The Cornhuskers have been more consistent and have given up just 12 sacks. Advantage: Nebraska.

Defensive line

Nebraska can bring the heat. Defensive ends Randy Gregory, Avery Moss and Jason Ankrah have combined for 14 of the team’s 31 sacks, good for tenth best in the country. Tackles Thad Randle and Aaron Curry are big bodies in the middle. Penn State’s defensive line heavily outmatched Purdue offensive linemen. They’ll have a tougher test against Nebraska. Deion Barnes is starting to heat up. He’s been in on sacks each of the last two games. Advantage: Nebraska

Linebackers

Penn State is thin and Nebraska is young at this position. The loss of Ben Kline means Nyeem Wartman and Brandon Bell will likely see more time alongside Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, Glenn Carson and Mike Hull. The latter two continue to rack up stops for Penn State as Carson leads the squad with 75 while Hull is second with 62. Nebraska has just one senior among its core group of linebackers. Senior Zaire Anderson is joined by sophomore David Santos and redshirt freshman Michael Rose. Jared Afalava and freshman Josh Banderas also see time. Santos is the leading tackler with 68. Advantage: Penn State.

Defensive backs

Adrian Amos and Jordan Lucas have both played strong games from their corner spots and have benefited from the availability of safety Ryan Keiser. Bigger corners, Amos and Lucas are Penn State’s most physical defensive backs and will be relied upon to outmuscle Nebraska’s strong wideouts and play downhill in run support. Nebraska’s secondary features two playmakers at the corner spots. Stanley Jean-Baptiste is drawing NFL looks with his size (6-3, 220) and his ball-hawking ability — he has seven career interceptions. Ciante Evans isn’t as big but is a versatile asset. He’s got three sacks to go with his three interceptions this season. Nebraska safeties Corey Cooper and Andrew Green both have extensive experience. Advantage: Nebraska

Special teams

Both teams field lackluster return units as Nebraska averages just 22 yards per kick return and four yards per punt return. Penn State also has yet to return a kick or punt for a score and is treading water at 20 yards per kick return and eight yards per punt return. The coverage units are comparable, although Penn State’s kickoff coverage has slipped of late. Sam Ficken has a season of experience on Nebraska’s Pat Smith. Ficken is 12 for 13 on field goals in the month of November. Advantage: Penn State

Coaching/Intangibles

Nebraska has been prone to mistakes this season and has largely gotten by despite sloppy play in a lot of games, and have been the worst team in the conference in turnover margin. The Cornhuskers have lost 13 fumbles and have turned the ball over 23 times. Teams cannot make those on the road in November. Meanwhile, Nebraska’s red zone defense is pretty bad. Opponents are scoring 93 percent of the time. Penn State has generated turnovers lately and will be tuned up to play on senior day. Advantage: Penn State.

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