The Nittany Lions proved yet again last week that inside the confines of Beaver Stadium they're a pretty good football team, defeating the Purdue Boilermakers 45-21.
Penn State is 5-1 at home this season, with their lone loss coming to 18th ranked Central Florida.
This week's contest against Nebraska (3:30 ET, BIG 10 Network) will be a true indicator of what kind-of team this Nittany Lion bunch is. Throughout the 2013 season, Penn State has pretty much taken care of the teams they were "supposed" to beat. However, against the teams where the talent level was even or maybe even higher they've not done well.
Nebraska certainly fits the mold of a team with equal or higher talent than the Nittany Lions. They have a plethora of playmakers and a front four on defense that generates a ton of pressure on the quarterback.
The Cornhuskers are coming into State College with a 7-3 record (4-2 BIG 10), coming off a 41-28 loss to 13th ranked Michigan State.
The Nittany Lions don't have it any easier next week either as they will travel to Wisconsin to play the 16th ranked Badgers. Meaning, these two games could define Penn State's season. At worst, Penn State ends up 6-6, but a win over either of these two prominent programs would definitely set things up nicely for the off-season.
As usual, O'Brien stated in his weekly press conference that he's only worried about one thing, and that's beating Nebraska later today.
"We are completely focused on Nebraska. I mean, believe me, we are not thinking one minute about Wisconsin, I can promise you that," said O'Brien. "This Nebraska team is a really good team. We're taking it one practice at a time, one day at a time, and just very, very focused on Nebraska. I don't try to define seasons. I leave that up to you guys."
I think Penn State's biggest challenge on the day will be containing Nebraska's fierce defensive front. They're big, strong, and make no mistake about it they're nasty. The Cornhuskers pass rush leads the BIG 10 with 32 sacks and ranks fourth nationally. Defensive ends Randy Gregory (8.5 sacks) and Avery Moss (4.5 sacks) are leaders of the defensive unit.
Obviously, what this means is that the Penn State offensive line must have a good day and must protect true freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg. "Hack" already has enough mental pressure on him to begin with being the signal caller of a big time FBS school. Literally, the added pressure of the Nebraska defense is not something that would bode well for Hackenberg or the Penn State offense.
"I think the offensive line has played fine all year," said O'Brien. "We have two guys (Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak) that have over 700 yards rushing. When you look at the sack totals, some of those sacks are on the quarterback or on a missed pick up by the back. I mean, I don't know. You guys must think it's not as good as I do. I think that the offensive line has played well all year."
As a true freshman it's fair to say that Hackenberg has handled things pretty well. O'Brien and quarterback coach Charlie Fisher are very demanding coaches. A lot is expected of a quarterback in O'Brien's system and it takes a very mentally tough player to run that that system. Hackenberg has shown that he is certainly capable of that and O'Brien talked about that fact earlier in the week.
"We've definitely increased his package every week," said O'Brien. "I think if you look at last week's game against Purdue, he made a lot more decisions at the line of scrimmage probably than he had made in most games. Some of those decisions he made on his own based on film study which is really, really good. That's when you know that a guy is starting to get it."
On the defensive side of the ball, Penn State will most likely struggle like they have against spread offense type teams throughout the year.
UCF, Indiana, and Ohio State are all teams that run the spread scheme and they all gutted the Nittany Lions defense. Their biggest concern on the day will be Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah. Abdullah has rushed for a BIG 10 best 1,336 yards and seven touchdowns. He also has a backfield mate in Imani Cross, who is a legit goal line threat. He leads the team with 10 touchdowns on the year and has rushed for 407 yards. As a team Nebraska averages 240 yards rushing per contest.
"They do many things on offense that present a challenge," said O'Brien "They can spread the field and play an East West game, which challenges your players to make plays in space. They can tighten you up and get behind those big offensive linemen and run the ball downhill. They have Abdullah who can do either. He can be in the backfield. He can be out as a wide receiver, so we've got a big challenge ahead of us."
At times this season, it has seemed that the Penn State defense has played soft, especially in the secondary. In my opinion, Penn State needs to get aggressive this week in all phases of the game. They need to blitz more and play more man-to-man coverage in the secondary. O'Brien mentioned a few weeks ago that he wanted to let his defensive guys just go out there and play. He wanted them to take chances. That's the kind-of Penn State defense that should be on the field later today.
On offense, it's now the second to last game of the season. Take the handcuffs off the "Hack" and let him take some shots down the field. There is no doubt this NIttany Lions team is talented, but I believe a more explosive effort is needed from all involved in the Nittany Lions program, including players and coaches.
The line for the Nebraska game has Penn State as a 1.5 point favorite.
The defense has just been so porous against spread offenses, so I'll have to go Nebraska 35, Penn State 24.