Early in the 2013 season there were a lot of questions to be answered about both the Nebraska Cornhuskers as well as the Penn State Nittany Lions. For head coach Bo Pelini’s squad the question seemed clear: How will the young Husker defense perform? Can they be physical enough to compete in the Big Ten this season? The certainty for the Huskers was also clear in the eyes of so many Husker fans. The Nebraska Cornhusker offense under the direction of offensive coordinator Tim Beck and the guidance of senior quarterback Taylor Martinez would operate as a well-oiled machine facing few challenges from the defenses in the Big Ten this season.
Well that was August, and now in November the Husker football team has made anyone who made such bold predictions look foolish. The offense is now without their one time Heisman hopeful quarterback and in his place is a red shirt freshman Tommy Armstrong. And as for the defense, well, they have come along quite nicely for coach Pelini and his defensive coordinator John Paupichis.
As the Cornhuskers are preparing for their matchup at State College in Happy Valley there are some glaring challenges for the Huskers to focus on. The Huskers will not overlook the Lions’ versatile rushing attack led by Bill Belton and Zack Zwinak. Belton leads the team with 796 yards rushing compared to Zwinak’s 725 yards. The Huskers will need to account for both men on the field at all times. The two running backs are not only capable threats carrying the ball in the Penn State offense. Belton is also the team’s fifth leading receiver, and Zwinak, who is a converted fullback, has a particularly important role in this week’s matchup.
This week Zwinak will be a vital pass protector against the Huskers’ emerging pass rush. In the past two weeks especially, the Huskers have become a very dangerous team rushing the passer. Led by defensive ends Avery Moss and Randy Gregory the Huskers are becoming a defense that resembles Blackshirt defenses from years ago. Gregory is so versatile that he is often given the option of lining up standing erect behind the defensive line and rushing the passer in whichever lane he chooses. Zwinak will be one of the individuals responsible for keeping the Huskers out of the backfield.
The man the Penn State Lions will be protecting is five-star recruit freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg. Hackenberg will also be asked to shoulder some of the burden himself. With an intense pass rush in his face Hackenberg will need to have an accurate mental clock in his head that notifies him when he needs to be getting rid of the football.
Also the most dangerous threat on the Penn State offense is wide receiver Allen Robinson. Robinson is the all-time receiving leader at Penn State and a likely All-American. The Nebraska secondary will be responsible for keeping track of Robinson on each and every play. Robinson is not only a threat catching the ball for the Nittany Lions as he has rushed for 27 yards on four carries this season. Leading the Huskers’ secondary will be seniors Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans.
Overall the Lions have a developing offense that has some treats that the Huskers must always be aware of. Robinson is already a great player and Hackenberg may eventually be considered one of the best quarterbacks to play at Penn State. It is unfortunate for Penn State fans that the two careers did not overlap for a longer period of time. The Huskers’ defense holds the edge in this contest.