Senior Day is here — and the No. 10 Nittany Lions (8-2, 5-2 Big Ten) welcome Nebraska (4-6, 3-4) for a game that probably won’t be pretty.
Nebraska has some semi-recent mojo on its side, winning the last four meetings with Penn State — the last coming in 2013 when the programs were helmed by Bo Pelini and Bill O’Brien, respectively. But Cornhuskers coach Mike Riley will be out in Lincoln sooner rather than later.
Here are a few things to keep an eye on during Saturday’s matchup:
Saquon Barkley needed only 136 rushing yards last week to clinch three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. Behind a beleaguered offensive line, he managed only 35 ... against Rutgers.
By all accounts, he should have a solid shot to reach 1,000 on Saturday to become just the second Penn State back to achieve the feat alongside Evan Royster. The Nebraska run defense — which is worst in the Big Ten and ranks 105th nationally (200.1 rushing yards per game) — is the perfect opponent to get 101 or more on the ground.
For Barkley, it’s a matter of when, not if. He has the Maryland game to close out the regular season and a bowl game (if he chooses to play).
But if Penn State’s offensive line can perform slightly better than last week, Barkley can turn in a signature “Saquon” performance in what should be his final game at Beaver Stadium.
Tanner Lee’s status
Nebraska quarterback Tanner Lee — the Big Ten’s fourth-most prolific passer behind Trace McSorley, Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson and Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett — appears to be on track to play Saturday.
Cornhuskers coach Mike Riley said Thursday that Lee is going through the concussion protocol, per a report by the Omaha World-Herald. Lee didn’t play in the second half of last weekend’s loss to Minnesota, but signs throughout the week were positive.
“If he does not have a setback, as of (Thursday), if everything checks out okay after this practice heading into (Friday’s) walkthrough, he will be cleared to play,” Riley said.
It’d be a huge boost for Nebraska.
Lee — while not overly efficient with a 57.2 completion percentage — is the only thing that’s worked for the Huskers’ offense this season. He’s thrown for 1,133 yards in his last 14 quarters.
“Their quarterback makes them go,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “From what I’ve seen on film and everybody I’ve talked to, big, strong quarterback that’s going to look great in warmups. Can make all the throws, sling it all over the field.”
If Lee can’t go, it’ll be redshirt freshman Patrick O’Brien’s job, who’d make his first start.
Leading the way
Penn State’s lone losses were at Ohio State and Michigan State by four total points. The defeat in Columbus was a fourth-quarter collapse, and a week later, the Nittany Lions fell on a time-expiring field goal.
Pair that with an average margin of victory of 30.25, and the next few stats make a whole lot of sense.
▪ Of the 600 minutes played this season, Penn State has trailed for 34 minutes, 6 seconds.
▪ The Nittany Lions have played with the lead on 80.8 percent of plays, ranking third behind Alabama and Central Florida.
▪ Penn State has played 56.6 percent of its plays per game with a 10-point lead or more, second in the country to only the Crimson Tide.
’Bama is playing lowly Mercer this weekend, so don’t expect the Nittany Lions to take over that top spot.
But as a 27-point favorite over Nebraska, Penn State shouldn’t have too much trouble leading throughout the night.
Dealing with the 3-4
Franklin compared a 3-4 defense in the Big Ten to Stanford’s pro-style, “pound-you-in-the-mouth” offense existing in the Pac-12.
“It doesn’t really fit the rest of the teams out there,” the coach said, “so in some ways it gives them an advantage.”
The 3-4 defensive look isn’t one Penn State sees frequently. Rutgers runs it, so succeeding last week through the air was a confidence boost.
But there’ll still be some uncertainty at Beaver Stadium this weekend.
“I think it changes combination blocks and who you’re working to, and how you’re coordinated across the board and how you’re accounting for the second level players and things like that,” Franklin said. “So for us, it’s our guys being confident to understand how our blocking rules and protection rules change for a 3-4 versus a 4-3.”
The Nittany Lions may not require his services, but if punter Blake Gillikin is called upon, expect him to help Penn State win the field position battle.
Gillikin — who was inexplicably left off the Ray Guy Award semifinalist list this week — is the Big Ten’s top-rated punter by Pro Football Focus. It’s easy to see why, too, with 22 punts inside the 10-yard line this season. He had three against Rutgers alone.
With an offense that’s averaging 37.7 points per game, Gillikin isn’t used too much. Among qualified Big Ten punters, there are only three players with fewer attempts.
But when called upon, Gillikin’s been a rock.