For the second year in-a-row, Penn State left a matchup with Nebraska with a heartbreaking loss.
But this time around, the Nittany Lions are heartbroken after suffering just a loss on the field; and not the on and off-field loss the team suffered last year in this game when their coach was fired mid-weel and a sex abuse scandal broke out just days before the game.
Despite holding a 20-6 halftime lead, Penn State couldn’t hold off a second-half charge from the No. 16 Huskers in Lincoln. The home standing Huskers outscored the Lions 26-3 in the second half, including back-to-back touchdown drives to start the third quarter, in route to a 32-23 win.
The Nittany Lions have made a living in 2012 by blitzing opponents in the first half, and Saturday was no different. But this time around, the Lions couldn’t make their first-half lead hold for the final thirty minutes as they suffered their fourth loss on the season.
Tailback Zach Zwinak got the scoring started early in the first quarter with a 50-yard touchdown at the 13:14 mark to put the visiting Lions up 7-0. The Huskers responded with back-to-back Brett Maher field goals to pull within 7-6 at the 12:29 mark of the second quarter. After a six minute deadlock, Penn State closed the first-half with a bang. Two Sam Ficken field goals bookended a touchdown pass from QB Matt McGloin to Jesse James at the 2:42 minute mark to put the Lions up 20-6 going into the break.
Everything was looking great for the Lions after 30 minutes, but then the second-half started.
Nebraska’s massive offensive line started moving downhill starting the third quarter and wore down the Penn State defensive line. That lead to a pair of Imani Cross touchdown runs within the first six minutes of the third quarter to pull the Huskers even at 20-20. The Lions responded with another Ficken field goal at the 6:01 mark of the third quarter to take back the lead at 23-20, but was held in check otherwise by the Blackshirt defense in the second-half.
After watching Penn State’s fast start, Nebraska decided they’d be the ones to finish. The Huskers started the fourth quarter with a touchdown pass from QB Taylor Martinez to Jamal Turner at the 10:57 mark to take the lead at 27-23.
After an impressive answering drive from Penn State down inside the Nebraska red zone, the drama kicked in. McGloin found tight end Matt Lehman on what appeared to be a touchdown reception to put the Lions up once again. Lehman caught the ball and appeared to break the plane of the goal line, but was hit almost simultaneously and the ball popped out. The ruling on the field was a fumble, and the call was upheld by the booth citing “Conclusive” evidence.
Following the fumble, the Huskers went three-and-out but were able to pin the Lions at their own 2 thanks to Brett Maher’s career-high 69-yard punt. Pinned at the 2 and forced to throw, McGloin was chased to the back of the end zone with pressure and called for interntional grounding in the endzone that resulted in a safety to push the Husker lead to 29-23.
Penn State wouldn’t find the scoreboard again, while Nebraska added another Maher field goal late to push the final score to 32-23. The Huskers forced three turnovers, including the key Lehman fumble, and racked up 267 yards on the ground. They also controlled the clock, holding the ball for over 34 minutes of game clock compared to Penn State’s 25 minutes.
McGloin finished with 240 yards passing and one touchdown and one interception. He completed just 18 of 37 passes in one of his worst games of the season. Martinez threw for 171 yards on 12 of 20 attempts with a lone touchdown, he also ran for 104 yards. Both starting tailbacks went over 100 yards, with Zwinak going for 141 for the Lions and Ameer Abdullah chipping in 31 carries for 116 yards on the night. Penn State’s Allen Robinson led all receivers with six catches for 97 yards.
The win marks the second time in as many weeks that the Huskers have pulled out an impressive second-half comeback. Nebraska topped Michigan State on the road in the final minute last weekend. With the win, the Huskers maintain their control of the league’s Legends Division for a chance to represent the division in the Big Ten Championship game. They hold a tiebreaker over Michigan, who came back to defeat Northwestern earlier in the day.
For Penn State, it was a spirited effort again from a team that has rallied from an 0-2 start to become one of the Big Ten’s best. Coach Bill O’Brien’s squad can still get to eight wins on the year with games still left against Indiana and Wisconsin. While any loss is disappointing for O’Brien and his team, the Lions can hang their hat on the fact that they’re a team that hasn’t given up and has played with immeasurable heart while enduring immense off-field pressure this season.
But in the end, it’s still a loss in the box score, and that’s something that won’t make O’Brien, or his team, happy this week as he prepares for Indiana. The Huskers know that they’re lucky to have escaped yet another drama-filled contest.
Brett Maher, K/P, Nebraska. Kickers don’t usually find themselves on this list, but we’ll give the Huskers’ special teams ace the nod thanks to his overall excellent day handling both punting and kicking duties. His booming punt late in the fourth quarter helped pave the way for the Blackshirt defense to close the deal with the safety. Enjoy the game ball, kid, you’ll probably never get another shot at it.