STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - Bill O'Brien has a reputation as a head coach who likes to throw the football, but he has said often that he wants a tough offense that can run the ball when the weather in Big Ten country starts to turn nasty.
Penn State will be ready for some late November weather on Saturday when it takes on Nebraska on Senior Day at Beaver Stadium.
The temperature for the 3:30 p.m. kickoff is expected to be in the mid 30s and there is a chance of snow showers and winds of 20 m.p.h. or more. The chill will become even more pronounced as dusk falls on Happy Valley.
The Nittany Lions (6-4, 3-3 Big Ten) have built some momentum in their running game the last three weeks, averaging 243 yards during that span, including a season-high 289 yards last week against Purdue. O'Brien hopes they can do it again, especially if the weather is foul.
"You have to be able to run the ball because the weather's not going to be ideal," O'Brien said. "When it's going to be windy, rainy, maybe snowy, you have to be able to run the football, and run it vs. what you would call loaded boxes where there's an extra guy."
What helps is having a 240-pound bruiser of a back like Zach Zwinak, who has rushed for 152 and 149 yards the last two weeks. Fellow junior Bill Belton, who provides a change of pace with a more shifty, darting style, picked up 201 yards on the ground three weeks ago against Illinois and leads the team with 796 yards.
Zwinak has rushed for 725 yards. Both backs have thrived behind an ever-improving offensive line.
"I think the offensive line has played fine all year," O'Brien said. "We have two guys that have over 700 yards rushing. When you look at the sack totals, some of them are on the quarterback or on a missed pickup by the back. The offensive line has played tough. They've done everything we've asked them to do."
Nebraska (7-3, 4-2) has a star back of its own in 5-foot-9, 190-pound junior Ameer Abdullah, who leads the Big Ten with 1,336 yards. Abdullah has rushed for 100 or more yards in seven straight games, taking on more of the load since quarterback Taylor Martinez was sidelined with a foot injury.
"He's a really good player, one of the best players in this conference, an explosive guy," O'Brien said. "He runs with great lean. He's got great quickness. We'll have to make sure we know where he is on every play."
The Cornhuskers have struggled throwing the football in Martinez's absence. Redshirt freshman quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., who will make his seventh start of the season, has completed 53 percent of his passes for 802 yards and seven touchdowns with seven interceptions.
But on the flip side, Nebraska makes it difficult for its opponent to succeed in the passing game, thanks to a pass rush led by 6-6 sophomore defensive end Randy Gregory. Gregory leads the Big Ten in sacks with 8.5 of his team's 32.
When: Saturday at 3:30 p.m.
Where: Beaver Stadium, State College, Pa.
Records: Nebraska, 7-3, 4-2 Big Ten. Penn State, 6-4, 3-3.
TV/Radio: Big Ten Network; WNTP-AM (990), WNPV-AM (1440).
Coaches: Nebraska, Bo Pelini (sixth season, 56-23); Penn State, Bill O'Brien (second season, 14-8).
Series: The Cornhuskers have won the last three games against Penn State and hold an 8-7 lead overall. The Nittany Lions' victory in 2002 was vacated by the NCAA.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH
The Nebraska pass rush, which has accounted for 32 sacks (tops in the Big Ten) this season, could make matters difficult for Nittany Lions freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg. Sophomore defensive end Randy Gregory leads the conference with 8.5 sacks.
The Cornhuskers lost five fumbles in last week's loss to Michigan State and are last in the league with a minus-12 turnover figure in Big Ten games. Penn State also struggles with turnovers; it has 12 fumbles on the season, only one fewer than Nebraska. Whoever fights that trend the best could emerge as Saturday's winner.
Nebraska junior Ameer Abdullah leads the Big Ten with 1,336 rushing yards and is sixth in FBS with his 133.6-yard average. The season high for rush yards allowed by the Nittany Lions this season is 147 by Ohio State's Carlos Hyde on Oct. 26.
THREE THINGS YOU MIGHT NOT KNOW
Penn State's Bill Belton (796 rushing yards) and Zach Zwinak (725) are the first pair of running backs to rush for more than 700 yards in the same season since Ki-Jana Carter (1,026) and Mike Archie (766) in 1993. In 2005, running back Tony Hunt (1,047) and quarterback Michael Robinson (806) topped 700.
Cornhuskers quarterback Taylor Martinez, the Big Ten's leader in career total offense (10,233 yards) among active players, has seen action in just four games this season. He has been out since the Oct. 26 game against Minnesota with a foot injury.
If Penn State cornerback Jordan Lucas makes a big play, watch to see what happens next. After his interception last week against Purdue, Lucas acted as if he were taking a "selfie" of himself and safety Malcolm Willis. Bill O'Brien says on-field celebrations are fine as long as they are not focused on one player. - Joe Juliano