The number two has taken on an added significance over the last few days for safety Malcolm Willis.
Not because the Penn State senior has just two games left in his career, no, he’s thinking of the number in a historical sense.
“The main thing I remember from playing Nebraska, we haven’t won a game in the last two years that I’ve played,” Willis said when asked of the emotional, 2011 game at Beaver Stadium.
Penn State (6-4, 3-3) will try to snap its recent skid to Nebraska (7-3, 4-2) when the Cornhuskers enter Beaver Stadium for a 3:30 p.m. kickoff Saturday.
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A win for the Nittany Lions will even the series 8-8 and further sully the Cornhuskers’ season that began with a healthy Taylor Martinez, conference championship and BCS bowl dreams. It also guarantees the Nittany Lions a winning season.
“Anytime you can have a winning season, I think it’s important to help you going into the offseason and things like that,” Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said. “No question about it. But I think the goal on Saturday is it’s not about clinching a winning season, it’s about going out there and doing everything we can against a really, really tough, good, Nebraska team to help our seniors go out winners. That’s the big deal to me.
A win for Nebraska will only help its cause to earn a trip to a warm-and-sunny bowl destination.
Penn State’s season will end in a likely frigid environment next week at Madison, Wis., however.
“This is everything we play for,” Penn State cornerback Jordan Lucas said. “These last two games are our bowl games, you know.”
Both teams have found success bowling over opponents with their running games.
Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah leads the Big Ten with 1,336 rushing yards, and Imani Cross has added ten touchdowns — with eight of those coming in the red zone. Abdullah, a junior, runs with a blend of quickness and power. His speed and ability to bounce off initial tacklers have helped him on 39 runs of 10 yards or more.
“He can do everything,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. “He’s a heck of a player, somebody who has great change of direction, great vision. He’s tough. There’s really nothing he can’t do.”
The Cornhuskers lost a valuable piece when Martinez played his last game with a foot injury on Oct. 26. But redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong Jr., has been able to lean on his team’s running prowess.
Penn State, which continues to get big plays in its passing game from quarterback Christian Hackenberg and receiver Allen Robinson, has a similar situation unfolding in the ground game.
Running backs Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton have been effective in stretches this season. They’ve combined for 1,521 yards and 17 touchdowns. And like the Cornhuskers have done consistently all season, Penn State’s offensive line has carried play and dominated in stretches over the last three weeks.
Penn State’s offensive line will have to repel a Nebraska pass rush that is tied for fourth in the country with 32 sacks.
“They’re that old throwback Nebraska team. They’re tough, they’re aggressive,” center Ty Howle said. “Their front four will get after the quarterback. Their linebackers and their whole front seven gets after the quarterback.”
Most of Nebraska’s sacks have come from defensive ends Randy Gregory and Avery Moss, who’ve combined for 13. Linebacker David Santos and safety Corey Cooper lead the defense in tackles. Senior cornerbacks Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans bookend a secondary that is fourth in the Big Ten and giving up 213 passing yards per game.
Penn State is looking to continue its defensive improvement.
Lucas said he’s noticed how much louder practices have been lately with multiple defenders vocalizing calls at maximum volume. All the added communication has helped the defense play a better overall team game, linebacker Mike Hull said.
In the past three games, Penn State has forced six turnovers. Nebraska continues to turn the ball over and has 11 turnovers in the past three games.