LINCOLN, Neb. – Nebraska has been winning despite the error of its ways. The 18th-ranked Cornhuskers don't want to tempt fate Saturday against a Penn State team that hasn't lost a Big Ten road game this season.
The Huskers (7-2, 4-1 Big Ten) figure they need to play as clean a game as possible against the Nittany Lions (6-3, 4-1) to maintain the inside track to the Legends Division title.
Nebraska has committed 23 turnovers, tied for sixth most in the Bowl Subdivision and four more than the Huskers had in 13 games last season. Only one team (Memphis) has lost more fumbles than the Huskers' 14.
Quarterback Taylor Martinez's 13 turnovers are most in the Big Ten and tied for eighth most in the country, according to STATS LLC.
The Huskers' minus-1 turnover margin is last in the Big Ten and 106th in the nation. Of 14 other teams with the same or worse margin, only Oklahoma State has a winning record.
"I think that it is the No. 1 thing that equates to winning and losing," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. "We've been fortunate to overcome that a couple times over the past few weeks, but percentages show you're not going to be able to overcome that a lot."
The Huskers, despite their missteps, are riding the most diverse and productive offense in the conference. Their defense is much improved since the 25-point loss at Ohio State a month ago, and for all the anxiety Martinez can create, he's the guy who has led the Huskers back from double-digit, second-half deficits in three of their four Big Ten wins.
"A lot of people say that maybe if (we) were in the position last year that the outcome wouldn't have been the same, and I believe in that," running back Ameer Abdullah said. "Just the poise and the confidence in our team is much higher and the character on our team, the standard that we hold each other to, is much higher than it was last year."
Nebraska turned over the ball a total of eight times in come-from-behind wins against Wisconsin, Northwestern and Michigan State. The opponents scored a combined five touchdowns off those mistakes and would have had a sixth if a penalty hadn't nullified a 94-yard interception return by the Spartans.
Penn State isn't prone to giving breaks to the opponent. The Lions are first in the Big Ten and 14th nationally in turnover margin, at plus-1.
That's an especially meaningful statistic for the Lions, who have maintained their sharpness despite being ineligible for the Big Ten championship game and a bowl.
The Lions have outscored the competition 107-30 in Big Ten road games, but they were against teams that have combined to lose 13 of 15 conference games (Illinois, Iowa and Purdue).
This will be the biggest road game of the year for Matt McGloin, whose career has been resuscitated in coach Bill O'Brien's pro-style offense. McGloin has thrown for a Big Ten-high 2,436 yards, and he and Martinez share the conference lead with 18 touchdown passes.
"It's definitely exciting to put up big numbers ... and the best part is going on the road and winning big," McGloin said. "That's one of the things we'd like to do on Saturday, is go out to Nebraska and try to take out that crowd as quickly as possible."
Nebraska hopes to not take itself out of the game with what Pelini likes to call "bonehead mistakes."
In addition to the turnovers, the Huskers have hurt themselves with penalties. They're the third-most penalized team in the Big Ten, committing an average of just under seven a game for the season. They've been flagged no fewer than eight times in each their last four games.
No team in the Big Ten averages more than the Huskers' 67 penalty yards a game.
"Sometimes I think that we're our own worst enemy," Pelini said. "When a guy comes off and he knows exactly what he did wrong and he just lost his concentration or focus for a second, that can't happen. It kills you."