Game Preview: Penn State vs. Nebraska

Story posted November 13, 2020 in CommRadio, Sports by Zach Donaldson

Last year, the Nittany Lions secured a victory in the Cotton Bowl over Memphis, and fans thought that would end up being a great segway into what was poised to be one of the best seasons that Penn State football has ever had.

Entering the year 2020, many thought that the best of the Nittany Lions was ahead of them.

But then the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the dominoes fell, and all of the sudden Penn State finds itself at 0-3 for the first time since 2001.

This Saturday, the winless Nittany Lions will square off against the winless Nebraska Cornhuskers. Who had that on their 2020 bingo card?

Penn State is entering this game attempting to bounce back from a 35-19 loss to Maryland in which the Terrapins dominated in all facets. Nebraska is coming off of a close 21-13 loss to Northwestern.

Let’s take a look at some of this week’s key matchups and keys to the game for each team.

The Nittany Lions have not played winning football this season whatsoever. The way in which they’ve played is not a recipe to win games, and it’s continually the same story week after week.

Offensively, poor blocking and protection up front, miscues and errant passes, turning the ball over, failure to establish a rushing attack, predictable play calling and just overall lack of execution has plagued this team in three straight weeks to start the season.

Defensively, the group has shown flashes, but overall looks uninspired and disconnected. The defense has yet to be seen firing on all cylinders and playing as a collective unit.

There are major issues on both sides of the ball that has had Penn State stuck in a tailspin. Against Nebraska, the Nittany Lions are going to need to flip the script on at least half of those narratives to beat the Cornhuskers and begin to turn their season around.

A good place to start would be on the defensive side of the ball.

Nebraska will likely roll out the two quarterback system consisting of Adrian Martinez and Luke McCaffrey. For the fourth time in four games, the Penn State defense will need to be on its toes as both Martinez and McCaffrey are dual threats who can make plays in the air and on the ground.

However, through their first two games, Martinez and McCaffrey haven’t shown much to be concerned about in the air. The pair has thrown for zero touchdowns and both have one interception. It’s a small sample size, but Penn State has had some trouble defending the pass this season, which makes it interesting.

Nebraska’s offense has only been able to muster 30 points over its first two games. It also hasn’t been too sharp on third down, with a conversion rate of only 30 percent which ranks in the bottom portion of college football. This should bode well for Penn State considering they’ve struggled getting off of the field on third down.

Penn State must take advantage of that trend and push for it to continue. The Nittany Lions must manufacture pressure up front to force Martinez and McCaffrey into uncomfortable situations, turnovers and prevent them from extending plays with their legs. Make them both prove that they can make plays with their arm.

In recent years, the Nittany Lions have been at their best when the defense isn’t on the field for long. But unfortunately, this year the offense has left a lot to be desired.

It sounds repetitive at this point, but Penn State must establish the run to open up the other dimensions of the offense. Kirk Ciarrocca’s system lives or dies by it.

Coming into the season, Penn State’s offensive line was supposed to be an elite, trustworthy, veteran unit that has yet to even graze those expectations. It’s essential that they the next step to give Sean Clifford the best opportunity to succeed.

Nebraska has a completely new defensive line this season and its run defense is allowing 181.5 yards per game. The defense for the Cornhuskers overall has not been very good, so this may be the week to get on the right track.

However, with that said, it may be that defense that the Cornhuskers need to rely on to get in the win column. Because as mentioned, Penn State’s offense hasn’t been great either.

Due to the lackluster performance up front and a rushing attack that’s been practically nonexistent, a lot of pressure is placed on Clifford at quarterback. So far, Clifford hasn’t responded well to that as he’s looked rattled and uncomfortable in the pocket, which has led to things like to poor decision making and overthrows.

If Nebraska can create some pressure on Clifford and place some additional attention on wide receivers Jahan Dotson and Parker Washington, the Nittany Lions have shown very little this season to think that they’d be able to overcome that and could be in for a long afternoon.

Penn State is better than its 0-3 record shows. Nebraska is probably better than its 0-2 record as well, but by a slimmer margin. But the bottom line is, both teams are messes right now and in terms of what this game will produce, it could be anything.

In this matchup with both teams desperate for a win, they’re going to have to play like they want it. Whichever team wants it more could be the deciding factor.

In wake of the news that Journey Brown will no longer be able to play football due to a medical condition, the Nittany Lions will be playing with heavy hearts. They will be fueled by that, make just enough plays and limit the mistakes to squeak by Nebraska.

Prediction: Penn State 27, Nebraska 17


Zach Donaldson is a junior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email