Lion D Braces for Biggest Road Challenge Yet

Morris, Mauti and company are set to tackle Nebraska and the Big Ten's best offense in Lincoln this weekend.

Penn State cornerback Stephon Morris made sure to vote Tuesday. He did so out of respect for his mom, whom he said is “very political.”

“I know it would break her heart, not to vote,” he said.

No word on his leanings. As for the polls in the precinct that includes Beaver Stadium, they closed long ago, with a clear mandate: Morris and his teammates threw their support behind each other. They also listened to everything Bill O'Brien had to say, and approved his message.

The Nittany Lions, 6-3 after last week's victory over Purdue, mark an anniversary of sorts this Saturday, when they visit No. 18 Nebraska (7-2). The Cornhuskers were the first team PSU faced last November, in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky indictment and the firing of the late Joe Paterno.

The Lions lost that day under interim coach Tom Bradley, then split their two remaining regular-season games before getting drubbed by Houston in the TicketCity.com Bowl.

O'Brien was hired in January, and you know everything that has happened since. During a conference call Tuesday, linebacker Michael Mauti was asked by a Nebraska reporter to compare and contrast Paterno and O'Brien.

“First of all, I don't think we have enough time to answer all those comparisons,” Mauti said. “Two very different coaches, different philosophies. You could write a book. Obviously two great coaches. Have a lot of respect for them. Coach O'Brien, he's been our leader throughout this whole process. I wouldn't want any other coach. I don't think any other coach could do as good of a job as he's done, keeping this whole program together, the whole athletic department together. I mean, I don't see what you could want from a guy who had to come in here and inherit a situation. In my opinion, that's the Coach of the Year, right there. I've said it all year.”

O'Brien has walked a tightrope, showing great respect for Penn State's history and tradition while putting his own stamp on the program. And there has been an understandable us-against-them vibe to this season. That has been particularly pronounced on the road, where the Lions to date have gone 3-1, losing only the first of those, by a point, to a Virginia club that is 3-6 at present.

Away from home, Mauti said, “Everything is narrowed down to its simplest form. All you have is the trainers. All you have is the coaches, the players and that's it. There's no auxiliary distraction. There's really just nothing else. But I think that plays to our advantage, just because there's always so much going on. We can just forget about it. We bring our own energy. Everything we need is within our locker room, within our staff. That's really what we like so much about it. Ever since this whole thing started, it's all we need -- the guys in our locker room. That's what we like about going on the road.”

Now they face their last road game of the season, and the last in the careers of their seniors, who have been the backbone of the team. Morris is part of that class, and he said that during practice Monday, he grew “a little emotional” when he thought about the game's significance.

“It's not sad; it's great,” he said. “But with this being our last big game and this being my last road game, especially in blue and white, it's kind of like breath-taking, you know?”

He will need to have his wits about him by Saturday, for not only is Nebraska sixth in the nation (and first in the Big Ten) in rushing offense, at 269.6 yards per game; it also boasts the conference's second-most prolific passer -- to Penn State's Matt McGloin -- in Taylor Martinez.

Martinez, known more for his running ability, has thrown for an average of 215.7 yards a game while completing 62.9 percent of his attempts, 18 for touchdowns. He has been intercepted eight times.

He remains a threat on the ground (666 yards, 5.7 ypc); Morris is impressed by the fact that Martinez is “straight-line fast.” And the Huskers' running game has not been significantly hampered by the knee injury bothering starting tailback Rex Burkhead. Burkhead has missed all or part of seven games, and his status for Saturday is up in the air. If he can't go, he will again be replaced by Ameer Abdullah, who has rushed for 826 yards (5.5 per carry).

Mauti sees similarities between Ohio State's Braxton Miller-led offense and the one headed by Martinez. Both are mobile quarterbacks, though Martinez appears to be the superior passer. The other challenge, Mauti said, is Nebraska's offensive line.

“Some big boys,” he said.

No bigger than most teams, though. The Huskers average 290 pounds per man along their offensive front. They have obviously been effective at road-grading, though, and that has opened up some other things.

“Their play-action offense is one of the best in the country,” Morris said, noting that the Huskers average eight yards on first down.

The Huskers also go no-huddle, and partly because of that have won three games this season in which they faced double-digit deficits in the second half. That includes last week, when they came from 10 points down in the fourth quarter to beat Michigan State, 28-24.

“From what we've seen it's pretty fast,” Mauti said of the Nebraska offense. “We're going to have our hands full, just getting set. … We do practice against the NASCAR a lot, so it's something that it's not foreign to us, but at the same time we just have to make sure we're on our game and make sure we get our guys set and ready to go.”

Penn State's defense -- its secondary in particular -- has improved as the season has progressed. Morris, one of four new starters for that unit, mentioned how he has grown into his role as the field corner (i.e., the corner who plays the wide side of the field), after playing the boundary corner in spring practice.

“I wouldn't say it took me a long time to learn the scheme,” he said, “but it took me a while to get confident with the defense. I think I started feeling really good about the defense once Week Two came around. I knew my role. I had accepted the fact I was the field corner.”

He believes teammate Adrian Amos is “one of the best cornerbacks in the Big Ten,” and that safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong has improved as much as anyone on the team since the beginning of the season. And as a group, Morris said, “We've come a long way” -- especially in the area of open-field tackling, which figures to be a big factor this week.

Mauti does not dispute that. Nor would anyone ever dispute the team's resilience on the road. Which probably shouldn't be a surprise, given the other challenges the Lions have faced in the last year.

“The more we go through as a team, the closer we get,” Mauti said. “It's really just been all about sticking together and fighting through adversity, like we have done. I don't think any team's gone through what we have, so we just want to continue to stick together and just continue to focus on our next opponent.”