So much has changed since the last time Penn State played Nebraska. That game, the first following Jerry Sandusky’s arrest, Joe Paterno’s firing and the beginning of a firestorm that slammed the university, was unlike anything.
There was raw emotion, there was confusion and there was disappointment. But ask the Penn State football team what they remember about the Nov. 12 contest, and you’ll get this response:
“Uh, we lost," senior fullback Michael Zordich said.
The Nittany Lions were ranked No. 12 at the time. Now, they are unranked and about to embark on an unprecedented journey that includes erased wins, scholarship reductions and a bowl ban.
But when Penn State (6-3, 4-1 Big Ten) takes Memorial Stadium on Saturday to face the Cornhuskers (7-2, 4-1), the team will echo the sentiment of Zordich: They just want to focus on football.
So here are five on-field storylines to follow, even though the story of the scandal’s aftermath will still linger:
Road warriors: There’s no rhyme or reason why it happens, but Penn State has played its best football on the road in the Big Ten this season. The Lions have won their three Big Ten road games by a combined score of 107-30. “There's no better feeling than going on the road,” quarterback Matt McGloin said. “Getting up early and just completely taking a stadium out of the game.” An expected 86,000-plus will pack Memorial Stadium on Saturday. Can McGloin and Co. sweep their Big Ten road schedule for just the third time in school history?
Belton in the dog house? Penn State’s most gifted running back is undoubtedly Bill Belton. The sophomore has healed from an ankle injury that sidelined him earlier this season. Then why didn’t he play against Purdue last week? According to hints from coach Bill O’Brien, Belton wasn’t giving 100 percent in practice, giving Zach Zwinak the opportunity to start -- and shine -- against the Boilermakers. Did Belton pick it up in practice this week? If Belton starts - and gets a bulk of the carries - on Saturday, you’ll know the answer.
In or out: Tight end Kyle Carter and defensive tackle Jordan Hill are both listed as ‘day-to-day’ on Penn State’s injury report. Carter injured his ankle in the fourth quarter against Ohio State and did not travel to Purdue. Hill sprained his knee against Purdue. At practice this week, it appeared that Carter was practicing without limitations. Hill, meanwhile, stretched with the team but seemed to have limited range. During position drills, the senior - wearing a sweatshirt under his jersey - did not participate. Based off that, it would be a surprise if Carter did not suit up on Saturday. Hill’s status, however, offers more intrigue.
Stopping Martinez: When Penn State faced Ohio State, things went awry for the lions when quarterback Braxton Miller picked up steam. Penn State just couldn’t contain the dual-threat stud. Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez is no Miller, but they have somewhat similar styles. And Martinez is hot, leading the Cornhuskers to three big wins in a row, including two on the road where Nebraska was losing by double-digits in the fourth quarter. Will the Lions’ defense be able to contain Martinez (62 percent completion rate)? If Hill, an all-Big Ten candidate, is not in the mix, will that present a problem?
A lot at stake: Penn State is still in the mix for a Leaders Division title, though the Lions won’t be able to go to the Big Ten title game and will not go to a bowl. In essence, the Lions are playing for pride. The Cornhuskers, too, have a lot riding on this game: they need another win to maintain their position atop the Legends Division standings and can control their own destiny to win the conference title.