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Penn State Ready For Senior Day Clash Against Nebraska

It seems like yesterday that Christian Hackenberg made his Beaver Stadium debut against Eastern Michigan in a 45-7 Penn State victory. On Saturday, the Nittany Lions (6-4, 3-3) will close out their home schedule against the Nebraska Cornhuskers (7-3, 4-2). In front of a home crowd, the Penn State senior class will be honored as Joe Paterno’s second-to-last recruiting class heads out the door.

Saturday’s matchup is an interesting one. On paper, these teams are pretty even — both Penn State and Nebraska are capable of putting up points and playing solid-yet-unspectacular defense. The Cornhuskers have a better run game while the Nittany Lions’ run game is nothing to scoff at. Penn State has a better pass game, although the Nebraska pass game can also be potent.

In games like these, you have to assume that emotion and home field advantage will play some sort of role. The Penn State senior class will play its heart out in its last game at Beaver Stadium, while the rest of the team will do everything in its power to give those seniors one last home win.

Then again, this is still a football game and what happens on the field plays the biggest role of all in determining the outcome. Nebraska will come into town with the 16th best run game in the nation, averaging 240.3 yards per game on the ground. Running back Ameer Abdullah has 1,336 yards — which is the most in the Big Ten and 8th nationally — and seven touchdowns on the season.

Without star quarterback Taylor Martinez, who is expected to miss the rest of the season with a foot injury, it would seem that Abdullah will be the face of the Cornhuskers’ offense on Saturday, at least in the early going. Nebraska would be smart to try and test a Penn State run defense that has looked average at some points this year. DaQuan Jones and co. will do their best to slow Abdullah down, but that battle in the trenches will be one of the deciding factors in the game.

Tommy Armstrong Jr., the redshirt freshman quarterback who replaced Martinez, has played well at times, but has struggled with turnovers. Penn State’s secondary, which looks better and better each week with Adrian Amos relocated to cornerback and Jordan Lucas steadily improving, should be able to prey on Armstrong.

On the other side of the ball, Nebraska has a solid defense that gives up 24.6 points per game. Just as is the case with the Cornhuskers, the Nittany Lions will be best suited to prominently feature the run game for the second straight week. Nebraska gives up 161 rushing yards per game, which is the fifth highest total in the conference. As long as Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton don’t fumble, it should be another big game for the Penn State running back corps.

Let’s take a look at some Nebraska players worth keeping an eye on come game time:

Tommy Armstrong Jr. #4 — Armstrong has started the last three games for the Cornhuskers after Martinez went down. He is completing 53 percent of his passes. Armstrong has yet to surpass 200 yards and has two three-interception performances in six games. Look for the freshman passer to struggle against Penn State.

Ameer Abdullah #8 — This junior running back has 1,336 yards on just 206 carries this season. He’s seen some action in the passing game too, hauling in 22 balls for 191 yards and two scores. Abdullah is one of the best running backs and best offensive players in the Big Ten. He has racked up more than 100 yards in all but one game…and he had 98 yards in that one game. There’s no doubt that stopping this monster of a back will be one of the biggest challenges that John Butler’s defense faces on Saturday.

Randy Gregory #44 – Gregory is a junior defensive end and one of the best pass rushers in the conference, capable of making his way into the backfield against just about anyone. Gregory has 48 tackles on the season with 15 of those being for a loss. He’s also racked up 8.5 sacks and 15 quarterback hits. Gregory will be a handful for the Penn State offensive line.

With that, here are some things to watch for from the Nittany Lions.

Emotion — Bill O’Brien has been great at keeping his team focused amidst off-the-field distractions. Saturday is Senior Day, which means that for a slew of Penn State players — including guys like Glenn Carson, Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, and John Urschel — it is their last time stepping onto the Beaver Stadium field for a game. If the Nittany Lions can use that emotion to play fiery football, it isn’t a bad thing. If they let emotion get the best of them, it can be.

Hackenberg’s play —  Christian Hackenberg will face off against a solid Nebraska secondary and a scary Nebraska pass-rush on Saturday. While he has been very good at home this season, it will be interesting to see if Hackenberg can keep that up against a tough Cornhuskers team.

The crowd — Thanksgiving break officially starts once classes let out today, so plenty of students will be heading home to start their vacation. We can only hope that the student section will be packed to honor the seniors, but that will be a big question mark until kickoff rolls around at 3:30 p.m. tomorrow.

It won’t be easy, but you can’t count the Nittany Lions out against the run and defense-oriented Cornhuskers.

By the Numbers: The Cornhusker defense is solid overall, but has been plagued by inconsistency this season. The unit gave up 41 points againt UCLA, 34 against Minnesota, 34 against Wyoming, and 41 against Michigan State. On the other hand, the Nebraska defense held Purdue to just 7 points and Michigan to a lowly 13.

Blast from the Past: Last season’s matchup against Nebraska was one of the most heartbreaking losses of the season for Penn State. After storming out to a 20-6 halftime lead, the Nittany Lions went on the lose 32-23, partly because of a controversial call late in the game that kept the Nittany Lions from scoring what would have been a go-ahead touchdown.

About the Author

Zach Berger

Zach Berger is a StateCollege.com reporter and Onward State's Managing Editor Emeritus. You can find him at the Phyrst more nights than not. If he had to pick a last meal, Zach would go for a medium-rare New York strip steak with a side of garlic mashed potatoes and a cold BrewDog Punk IPA. You can reach him via e-mail at [email protected] or on Twitter at @theZachBerger.

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