Prior to the 2014 season, the Big Ten announced it would no longer align it’s conference into the “Legends” and “Leaders” divisions, and instead would transform the two rankings into geographical pairing, aptly titled the “East” and “West” divisions. While the proximity of the teams made for an easy realignment, the change failed on one crucial detail: parity. Often considered the far more powerful division, the East hosts Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State, while the West holds claim to only one title contender, Wisconsin.
Want to know the true power of disparity between the two conferences? Let’s do a little exercise. Team A is 4-6, including a 3-4 record in the Big Ten. Team B is 4-6, including a 3-4 record in the Big Ten. One plays in the East, the other, in the West. The Eastern division team we’re referring to here is Rutgers, Penn State’s most recent opponent. The Scarlet Knights’ record put them fifth place in the East, or third from the bottom. With an identical record, but playing in the West, Team B is this week’s opponent, the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Despite having the exact same record across the board as Rutgers, Nebraska sits in third place in the West, behind just Wisconsin and Northwestern.This completed exercise is another futile attempt at rectifying the disparity among the conferences that will likely fall on deaf ears.
Regardless, let’s get to the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
For the first time since 2013, the Cornhuskers have been lining up offensively without their signal caller, Tommy Armstrong. Armstrong threw for 58 touchdowns and rushed for 21 more in the three seasons he started at Nebraska. The shoes that Armstrong left were large, indeed. Attempting to step in them was Tulane transfer Tanner Lee. After two seasons as the Green Wave starting quarterback, Lee sat the required year after transferring to Nebraska. This is now his Cornhuskers team.
This season, he’s completed just over 57 percent of his passes for 2539 yards though the air. He’s added 18 touchdowns, but has also completed 13 passes to guys in opposite color jerseys. One more interception would match a career high for Lee. To Lee’s credit, the gunslinger did throw four interceptions against Oregon back in September, so that 13 interceptions in ten games ratio, a 1.3 picks per game clip, drops to nine interceptions in nine games, down to a flat one per game.
Tanner Lee did suffer a concussion in last week’s outing, a lopsided 54-21 loss to Minnesota. It has been reported that Lee is progressing through the concussion protocol stage and appears to be on track to play this weekend. No official word has been released yet, though. Should he not be able to dress for Saturday’s affair, the signal caller duties would fall upon freshman quarterback Patrick O’Brien. O’Brien has attempted just 30 passes in his collegiate career, completing 18 of them. He saw his first extended action last week when Lee was sidelined with the head injury. He completed 12 of 18 in that game, throwing for 137 yards.
Should it be O’Brien and not Lee, I’d expect a heavy dose of run game from the Cornhuskers. For a team that already has run the football 123 more times than thrown it this season, it would make logical sense for a large chunk of their offenses playbook be running plays this weekend. Nebraska falls under a similar paradox that many teams that have faced Penn State this season have: attempting to replace leading men from a year prior. Last season, Terrell Newby led all Cornhusker rushers in attempts (190) and yards (879) and was second only to Tommy Armstrong (8) in touchdowns with seven. Losing Newby hurt but losing the combination of Newby and Armstrong, which racked up nearly 14 yards and found the endzone 15 times has been an excruciatingly difficult task for Head Coach Mike Riley.
In their absence, Riley has turned to junior running back Devine Ozigbo. Ozigbo has already carried the ball 119 times, which is over 40 more touches than he received in 2016. He’s turned those 119 attempts into 468 yards and two touchdowns. The 3.9 yards per carry average isn’t blowing any teams away, but it is actually better than the Cornhuskers’ average as a team.
Behind Ozigbo, two backs have combined for an additional 122 carries. Tre Bryant began the year as the feature back for Nebraska, rushing 31 times in week one for 192 yards and a score. He followed that performance up with another 20 carries for 107 yards in the loss to Oregon. Since then, however, Bryant hasn’t been able to get on the field due to a nagging knee injury. The injury was a huge blow to the running game.
The other back getting the bulk of the backup snaps is junior Mikale Wilbon, who has been given 71 carries this season, turning them into 287 yards. Wilbon originally took over for Bryant after the injury, rushing the ball 24 times for 90 yards against Northern Illinois. His carries have decreased each week since, and since October 14, he’s rushed the ball just 15 times to Ozigbo’s 52 attempts. While Wilbon did garner 10 touches last week, his most since September 29, it’s clear, for now that the pecking order is Ozigbo first followed by Wilbon.
Have you ever had the feeling that an athlete was at a school for longer than they should have been, despite the fact that they truly were only there for four years? That’s how I also felt about Jordan Westerkamp, the seemingly ageless wide receiver for Nebraska. Westerkamp caught 167 passes in his four years at Nebraska, but was seemingly always in the action or around the football. He’s no longer with the program, and Nebraska is now using a slew of wide receivers as his replacement.
The top two receivers for Nebraska are so eerily similar in statistics that I felt it necessary to lump them together. JD Spielman has caught 49 balls this season for 734 yards. He’s also found the endzone twice this season. At just 5’9″, Spielman is used primarily out of the slot to open up the middle of the field. He could pose a concern for the Penn State cover linebackers this week if Lee or O’Brien are given enough time to throw the football. The freshman is still learning how to play at the collegiate level, but could be very good for a long time.
Opposite Spielman is fellow junior Stanley Morgan Jr. who has just two fewer receptions and seven less yards that Spielman. Morgan, however, has found paydirt seven times this year, meaning he’s catching a touchdown better than once every seven receptions. Behind those two receivers is speedy senior De’Mornay Pierson-El, who has hauled in 38 passes this season for 530 yards and four scores. A caveat to his four touchdowns is that Pierson-El scored twice on two receptions in the first week of the season, so he’s been held to just two touchdown grabs over the last nine weeks. The trio have all eclipsed career highs in receptions, yards and touchdowns. They’d make for an extremely dangerous aerial attack if they had stronger quarterback play.
Despite the fact that Nebraska certainly has weapons on offense, at the end of the day, it likely comes down to quarterback play. And for the Cornhuskers, it simply hasn’t been very good this season. 22 Nittany Lions will walk out of Beaver Stadium for the last time as players this Saturday, and you can bet they want to ring the victory bell one final time. This game will be emotional for Mike Gesicki, Jason Cabinda and the likes, and they’ll come out ready to grab win number nine and remain in New Year’s Six contention. The Cornhuskers are reeling, and if Tanner Lee doesn’t play, this one could get ugly.
Final Prediction: Penn State 41 Nebraska 13
Mandatory Credit: Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports