Two sets of numbers suggest that Saturday’s Nebraska-Penn State football game is a toss-up.
Total offense: NU 440.6 yards a game, Penn State 434.6.
Total defense: NU 373.5, Penn State 375.7.
“Statistic-wise, it’s almost even,” NU football administrator Jeff Jamrog said Friday in Omaha.
But another stat might explain why oddsmakers have made Penn State a two-point favorite: The Nittany Lions are 5-1 at home this season, with their only loss a three-point setback to Central Florida — a team that is 8-1 and, in Jamrog’s view, a strong candidate for a BCS bowl game.
“They play really well at home,” Jamrog said at this week’s Big Red Breakfast.
But Jamrog expects the Huskers to play well, too, even though last week’s loss to Michigan State knocked them out of Big Ten title contention.
“There’s a lot of pride in that room,” NU’s assistant athletic director for football told about 120 fans at the Ramada Plaza Hotel and Convention Center. “It is a close-knit group. Coach Pelini has our players’ backs. Our players have Coach Pelini and our staff’s. Everyone is on the same page.”
The Huskers are 2-0 against Penn State since joining the Big Ten, but they had to rally from a 20-6 deficit to beat the Nittany Lions 32-23 last year in Lincoln.
While the Nittany Lions have had to replace last year’s quarterback, Matt McGloin, who is starting this weekend for the Oakland Raiders, they’ve seen steady progress from 18-year-old true freshman Christian Hackenberg. Jamrog said Hackenberg is getting comfortable reading defenses and changing plays at the line of scrimmage.
Other key Lions from last year’s game return, including running back Zach Zwinak, who ran for 141 yards and a touchdown against Nebraska, and star receiver Allen Robinson.
While Husker receivers Quincy Enunwa and Kenny Bell figure to be All-Big Ten candidates, they have combined for 80 catches and 1,002 receiving yards. Robinson has 81 for 1,204.
“Allen Robinson’s a heck of a player,” Jamrog said.
Other comments from Jamrog:
Ľ Among the 70 players on NU’s travel roster, 41 are freshmen or sophomores. But Jamrog, a former Husker defensive end and defensive line coach, likes the talent he’s seen from the underclassmen. Freshman I-back Terrell Newby, who failed to corral an option pitch against Michigan State, “has star written all over him,” Jamrog said. He also likes defensive tackle Maliek Collins, a freshman from Kansas City, Mo. “Really keep an eye on him. Great balance. Explosive.”
Ľ NU coaches are taking 13 offensive linemen to State College because of uncertainty over the playing status of several veterans. Jamrog said coaches think they’ll be able to get at least some snaps out of junior guard Jake Cotton.
Ľ Jamrog, who started his NU playing career as a walk-on, noted that the travel roster to Penn State includes 17 current or former walk-ons, including Ryker Fyfe, a redshirt freshman quarterback from Grand Island, Neb. Jamrog said Fyfe is good enough that he may influence the number of quarterbacks Nebraska signs. “He has the talent of a scholarship player.”
Ľ Another walk-on, wide receiver Sam Burtch, was invited to join the program after a late pitch from his high school coach at Elmwood-Murdock, Leigh Schmale. Jamrog said Schmale told him Burtch was every bit as good as Matt Davison, the Nebraska prep boys athlete of the year at Tecumseh who went on to play four years for the Huskers and then become one of their radio announcers.
“So I told Matt that,” Jamrog said, “and of course Matt didn’t like hearing that.” When Burtch made a big catch in the spring game, Jamrog sent a text message to Davison in the radio booth. “He said, ‘He’ll probably break all my records,’ ” Jamrog said. “I texted back: ‘What records are you talking about?’ ”
Ľ A fan question: “Can you talk about how we don’t get anything out of our punt return game?” Jamrog’s answer: “You sound like my wife.”
* * *
Video: The Big Red Today Show, Nov. 19: