Penn State ventures into Lincoln for the first time since 2003 this weekend to take on a hot Nebraska team. To get an inside perspective on the Cornhuskers, we went to Michael Bruntz, the beat writer for our sister site, Huskers Illustrated, and picked his brain about five topics pertinent to the matchup.
Like Penn State, Taylor Martinez and Nebraska's offense likes to push the tempo.
Lions247: Ohio State puts up 498 yards and 63 points against Nebraska's defense, then Michigan gets 166 yards and nine points. Which Cornhusker defense will show up Saturday and why has it played better the last few games?
Michael Bruntz: The Ohio State game and the bye week that followed were a bit of a wake-up call for Nebraska's defense. Since getting smacked in the mouth by the Buckeyes, Nebraska's defense is playing with more urgency – swarming to the ball, playing more aggressive against wide receivers and executing assignments better. Nebraska has also benefited from facing less mobile quarterbacks during that stretch, which has allowed Nebraska to dial up the pressure in the pass rush.
L247: Penn State likes to push the tempo and play fast. What sort of tempo does the Nebraska offense prefer and will Penn State's quick style alter that this week?
Bruntz: When Tim Beck was hired as offensive coordinator two years ago, head coach Bo Pelini wanted an offense where he could play with tempo and put pressure on opposing defenses with the hurry-up game. On Saturday, expect Nebraska to operate exclusively out of the no-huddle. Nebraska had success against Michigan, Michigan State and Northwestern when it really kicked up the pace, and will try to do the same against Penn State. Nebraska has had just one scoring drive last longer than three minutes in its last three games.
L247: Which has been the best way to rattle Taylor Martinez this year -- bring extra pressure or drop more players into coverage?
Bruntz: Teams like UCLA and Ohio State had success bringing pressure and flushing Martinez from the pocket. A number of his interceptions this season have come when he has left the pocket and thrown back into coverage trying to make a play. Nebraska has a number of skill players Martinez can get the ball to, and he has improved as a passer, so allowing him time to sit back and throw isn't the best course of action.
L247: How do Nebraska fans feel about a crossover "rivalry" game with Penn State each year and which Big Ten schools do you see the Huskers building the most intense rivalries with?
Bruntz: I think Nebraska fans are taking a wait and see approach to see what this Penn State crossover series will look like. Last year's game was obviously a bit of a departure from the norm, and I think some Nebraska fans are waiting to see what the NCAA sanctions will do to Penn State in the long-term. As for rivalries in the Big Ten, I think Iowa makes sense because of proximity, and Michigan-Nebraska has the potential to be an interesting game each year.
L247: What, in your opinion, are two things Nebraska needs to do to win this game?
Bruntz: Most importantly, Nebraska needs to win the turnover battle. The Huskers are 7-2 and among the worst in the country in turnover margin. Nebraska has been winning in spite of itself and self-inflicted mistakes. In its last five games, Nebraska is 4-1, and has committed 14 turnovers during that stretch. At some point, that's going to come back and bite Nebraska in a big way. Nebraska needs to establish the running game quickly on offense. Rex Burkhead is unlikely to play, so again, sophomore Ameer Abdullah will be expected to carry the load Saturday. If Nebraska starts moving the ball early on the ground, that allows them to set up the play-action game and push the pace with its tempo game.