By Thomas Frank Carr
On Saturday November 23rd The Penn State Nittany Lions will finish their 2013 home slate with a matchup with the Nebraska Cornhuskers. It is senior day in Happy Valley and Lions Head Coach Bill O’Brien knows what that means for his seniors,
“Yeah, it’s an emotional day, and you have to be really aware of that. I remember last year… shaking their hands when they came out of the tunnel and the looks in their eyes. And there are a lot of kids with emotions because they know that this is the last time they’re going to play on that field. It kind of strikes you.”
No doubt it will be an emotional day for the seventeen seniors who are playing their last game at Beaver Stadium. As always, the seniors will be introduced individually and honored before the game. However, Coach O’Brien doesn’t want that emotion to spill over into the game and distract his team,
“I think what we’ll do is introduce them, go back in the locker room and get re-focused on the game and what we have to do to win the game. At the end of the day, like I said a few weeks ago, if you keep reminding them and keep them focused on what the keys to victory are, then I think that’s what they focus on. But again, that will be a little bit of an emotional time for them.”
Beyond honoring his seniors, or the emotion of the day, O’Brien knows that one thing is most important to his team- winning.
“We’re putting everything we can into practice and making sure that we do as good a job as we can to help these seniors go out on a winning not.”
It certainly will be a battle on Saturday. Nebraska comes in as one of the top teams in the Big 10 this year. They’re one of only 17 teams in the country that is averaging over 200 yards rushing and passing on the season. They are led by dangerous all-purpose threat Ameer Abdullah. The 5-9 190lb junior running back has rushed for 1,336 yards on the season and has only missed going over 100 yards once on the year…he got 98. The Penn State defense has had its struggles this year with elite talent at the tailback this season. Containing Abdulla will be key to victory on Saturday.
It’s not just Abdulla that the Penn State defense will have to contend with. The Huskers have a pair of veteran receivers who can be a challenge on the outside in junior Kenny Bell and Quincy Enunwa. The man who was supposed to man the Nebraska offense was senior quarterback Taylor Martinez. When the senior quarterback went down with an injury earlier this year the team turned to redshirt freshman quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. The young signal caller has led Nebraska to a 5-1 record and has helped Nebraska to put up 456 yards a game and 35 points per contest. He and senior Ron Kellogg III have split time at quarterback this season since Martinez’s injury.
On defense, O’Brien is impressed with what Nebraska brings to the table,
“They have tall, rangy guys, physical guys at every position. They run well, they’re explosive players. I wouldn’t say at many times it’s not the most complex (defense), because the type of players they have, they play a coverage that is very, very difficult to go against. So that’s going to be the challenge for us is can we get open against these guys and that will be the big challenge.”
On of those players that O’Brien mentioned is senior corner Ciante Evans. He leads a secondary that has been much improved as of late and are allowing only 212 yards passing a game. As a defense the Cornhuskers are ranked first in the Big 10 and fourth nationally with 32 sacks on the season. Their best performance came in a win against Michigan where they had seven sacks and allowed -21 yards rushing all game. Nittany Lions quarterback Christian Hackenberg will have to be at his best on Saturday. A good way to neutralize a strong pass rush is with success in the running game. Penn State has found that as of late, they’ve had rushers of 150 yards or better for the past three weeks and have rushed for 190 yards or better in six of ten games this season. Coach O’Brien has been pleased with his offensive line’s performance throughout the year,
“We have two guys that have 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 think that the offensive line has played well all year. They’ve done everything that we’ve asked them to do and they’ve been fun to coach.”
It will take everything the Nittany Lions have on Saturday to defeat Nebraska on senior day. But this is a very winnable game between two very evenly matched teams. Neither has too much of an advantage of strength at any position. As always for Penn State it will come down to ball security and turnovers. If the offense can hold onto the ball and the defense can bend but not break, the Nittany Lions have a great shot to do exactly the thing that Coach O’Brien wants to do; send his seniors of Beaver Stadium as winners.