This won't be just the opening defense of a national championship; some people think Penn State will be fortunate tonight just to defend itself.
Nebraska, ranked No. 1 in both preseason wire-service polls, will play No. 4 Penn State in East Rutherford, N.J., at 9 (WTTG-TV-5) in the inaugural Kickoff Classic. A regular season game, it is being accompanied by all the flair and anticipation of a bowl game.
But there may be more apprehension than anticipation on the Nittany Lions' side of the field. After all, Nebraska has one of the fastest backfields in the nation with Turner Gill at quarterback, Mike Rozier at halfback and Irving Fryar at wingback.
The Penn State players didn't even know who their quarterback would be until yesterday morning, when Coach Joe Paterno announced that Doug Strang will start. Strang, a 6-foot-1 junior, completed eight of 22 passes for 137 yards and had two interceptions in eight games last year as backup to Todd Blackledge.
Paterno said he is "not a two-quarterback coach," but added that Dan Lonergan, who has contested Strang for the starting spot all summer, will play.
"They're so similar that I haven't felt it was necessary to make a decision in a hurry," Paterno said. "They're both in the 200- to 210-pound range, they both move well, they have very strong arms, they're tough mentally and physically.
"Doug has been ahead of Danny for a long time, but Danny's just kept pecking away and getting closer and closer. Doug has been in more football games and has a little experience. It came down to almost nothing separating them, except Doug has been in more games.
"The squad is very comfortable with both, and both are capable of playing well . . . Both kids are so well prepared that I want to make sure Danny gets to play--not only because of this game, but because, with our tough schedule, we'll certainly need more than one quarterback down the line."
The lack of an established quarterback is the primary reason Penn State is expected to have trouble tonight. It took a touchdown pass by Blackledge with four seconds remaining last year for the Lions to beat the Cornhuskers, 27-24. That was Nebraska's only loss.
Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne and his players have been trying to downplay the notion that Penn State's offense, which still has tailback Jon Williams and receiver Kenny Jackson, could be mediocre, even without an experienced quarterback.
"Everybody keeps saying Penn State's offense is the weakest part of their team," said nose guard Mike Tranmer. "But Penn State has always had a good offense, and with Jon Williams at tailback, I don't see how they can be weak at all."
But that offense, which also lost tailback Curt Warner, should be much weaker than Nebraska's, which led the nation in rushing with 394 yards per game last season. Even with center Dave Rimington gone, Nebraska retains a potent running game. Rozier, a senior, has rushed relatively unnoticed through three seasons because of Herschel Walker. Last season, Rozier gained 1,689 yards, 63 fewer than Walker, but had 100 fewer carries.
"He's probably as good as any back in the country, and quite likely the best going into this year," Osborne has been quoted as saying. "I'm not sure he wasn't (the best) last year."