The scene was surreal when Penn State and Nebraska played last November, a game that was a mere sideshow to an overwhelming scandal still in its infancy.
A year later, the focus will be solely on a pair of pretty good football teams.
The 18th-ranked Cornhuskers can take a big step toward their first Big Ten division title Saturday against visiting Penn State in a battle of two of the league's top offenses.
Joe Paterno had just been fired and the Jerry Sandusky scandal was only a week old when Nebraska traveled to Happy Valley for a game that many felt shouldn't have been played last Nov. 12. It was, and the Cornhuskers came away with a 17-14 victory that wound up costing Penn State a chance to play in the Big Ten championship game.
The scandal's resulting sanctions have left the Nittany Lions (6-3, 4-1) ineligible to represent the Leaders Division in Indianapolis, but Nebraska is in great shape to make it there as champion of the Legends Division. The Cornhuskers (7-2, 4-1) rallied from a double-digit, fourth-quarter deficit on the road for the second time in three weeks last Saturday, topping Michigan State 28-24 on Taylor Martinez's 5-yard touchdown pass to Jamal Turner with 6 seconds left.
"We think we're the best in the Big Ten. We're not going to be stopped,'' Turner said. "We're going to keep going until we accomplish what we want to accomplish, and that's the Big Ten championship. It doesn't matter how much we're down by - 20, 30 points - we're going to keep fighting until we win the game.''
Nebraska is tied for the Legends lead with Michigan, but owns the tiebreaker over the Wolverines. That means if the Cornhuskers win out - they host Minnesota and also visit Iowa - they're headed for Indianapolis.
If Martinez can cut out some of his recent mistakes, Nebraska shouldn't have any problems. He's thrown seven interceptions in the last four games - including three last Saturday - but also has a total of 12 touchdowns in that span.
Four of those scores came against the Spartans, including a season-high 205 yards and 2 TDs on the ground.
"Let's face it, he's getting better as a football player,'' coach Bo Pelini said. "You get better and your confidence grows, and you have a belief you can get in that situation and have success."
Martinez could get a boost in the backfield this week as running back Rex Burkhead may return after missing two games with a nagging knee injury. Burkhead has averaged 8.6 yards per carry in limited action, and ran 26 times for 121 yards and a score last season at Penn State.
The Nittany Lions, meanwhile, are hoping to have star defensive tackle Jordan Hill available after the senior sprained his knee last weekend.
Nebraska leads the Big Ten in total offense (487.3 yards per game), and the Nittany Lions haven't been far behind recently. They've averaged 439.2 yards since conference play began, and racked up a season-high 506 yards last Saturday in a 34-9 rout at Purdue.
"Things were clicking for the offense," said quarterback Matt McGloin, who has averaged 304.8 yards through the air the past four games. "We moved the ball up and down the field after some adjustments. Hopefully that carries into Nebraska next week."
One of the keys to Penn State's success has been starting well. The Nittany Lions have outscored opponents 76-3 in the first quarter and 137-33 in the first half, leading the nation in fewest points allowed in each category.
That could leave the Cornhuskers, who have been outscored 89-65 in the first half of their conference games, in position to play from behind again.
Martinez, for one, doesn't seem to mind having to go into their 2-minute offense.
"It's pretty much our normal offense,'' Martinez of the Cornhuskers' hurry-up, "because we go at such a fast pace.''
Bill O'Brien has brought a similar up-tempo style to Penn State, and McGloin - completing a career-high 62.1 percent of his passes with 18 TDs and three interceptions - is executing it well.
Nebraska, however, is holding opponents to a 46.0 completion percentage - lowest in the nation.
McGloin could also be without one of his favorite targets. Tight end Kyle Carter, second on the team with 35 receptions, is questionable with a foot injury.
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