Mike Cavanaugh’s comments this week regarding the prowess of Penn State’s defensive front might qualify as an “uh-oh” moment for Nebraska’s offensive line.
As in, “Uh-oh, here we go again.”
“They’re similar to Ohio State,” line coach Cavanaugh said of the Nittany Lions’ front seven. “They’ve got big, super-athletic guys who are physical. It’s going to be a hell of a challenge.”
Recall that Ohio State held Nebraska to 26 rushing yards (on 12 attempts) through three quarters of a 56-14 annihilation Oct. 14 at Memorial Stadium.
The Huskers were never in that game.
A natural question arises: How much better will Cavanaugh’s crew have to play than it did during Saturday’s 54-21 loss at Minnesota, in which backup quarterback Patrick O’Brien was sacked six times in the second half after entering in relief of starter Tanner Lee?
What’s more, Nebraska (4-6, 3-4 Big Ten) finished with only 69 rushing yards (2.1 per attempt).
As one might expect, Cavanaugh said the Husker line will have to play “a lot better” against 10th-ranked Penn State (8-2, 5-2) in order for the team to pull off what would be regarded as a startling upset.
The Nittany Lions rank second in the Big Ten in scoring defense, allowing only 13.9 points per game.
“A lot of our problems had to do with us, you know what I mean?” Cavanaugh said of the Minnesota game. “We’d give up pressures or we’d give up a sack and it was bad technique. We have to correct it.”
Nebraska’s linemen will try to correct the issues amid the din of Beaver Stadium, which holds 106,000-plus fans. Penn State surely will be intent on sending off its seniors with a triumph in their last home game.
“You’re not going to be able to hear things, so you better have a great understanding of what this defense is doing, and it’s pretty complex,” Cavanaugh said.
Added Nebraska running backs coach Reggie Davis: “If guys (on offense) are not on the same page, it’s going to look pretty bad. It’s going to be huge for us to make sure we have some nonverbal communication because it will be extremely loud. If we’re on the same page, we’ll be all right.
“If communication starts breaking down, that’s when things start getting really ugly.”
Davis agreed with Cavanaugh that Penn State’s defense is complex.
“They throw a lot at you frontwise, blitzwise, pressurewise, that you have to prepare for,” Davis said.
Nebraska’s offensive line this season has been defined by inconsistency, and sometimes just downright ineffectiveness. The line’s issues have been a season-long storyline, in part because that group was identified throughout the offseason as being critical to the program’s improvement.
Against Minnesota, though, Cavanaugh’s crew was manhandled at times, especially in the second half, when it was obvious Nebraska would have to pass and the protection faltered badly.
“It came down at times to where we had the right call made, and we don’t block the guys,” Cavanaugh said. “So the focus is having everybody locked in to do their job.”
Nebraska right guard Matt Farniok, a redshirt freshman, made his fourth career start against Minnesota alongside true freshman right tackle Brenden Jaimes. This week, however, senior David Knevel is pushing Farniok for the starting guard job.
“We struggled a little bit at times last week (on the right side),” Cavanaugh said. “We’re going to let those guys (Knevel and Farniok) go at it this week.”
Knevel has started 11 career games at right tackle, including the opener this season, but has battled ankle/foot issues.
He apparently feels better.
“He told me he’s hungry,” Cavanaugh said. “Sure hope he is. Let’s go.”
Meanwhile, Jaimes is set to make his eighth straight start at right tackle. It’ll be another colossal challenge for a kid who last year at this time was playing for Lake Travis High School in Austin, Texas.
Cavanaugh likes Jaimes’ mental and physical toughness, not to mention his football IQ. On the other hand, Jaimes has ample room for improvement. After all, he’s in the very early stages of his college career playing a position at which most players redshirt.
“His knee bend could be better, his posture — he’s a little bit of a leaner,” Cavanaugh said. “It’s just little details of his craft. But I think he’ll go in Saturday and fight like crazy. That’s how the kid is.”
Paying attention to details will be essential against Penn State.
“We have to be sharp,” Cavanaugh said.