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Huskers Rise Again After Halftime, Down Penn State 32-23
Huskers Rise Again After Halftime, Down Penn State 32-23
This might not have been adequate ‘revenge’ for 1982, but the 2012 Huskers will certainly take it.
Trailing 20-6 at halftime and facing their fourth-double digit second half deficit of the season, Nebraska was able to overcome that double-digit deficit and storm back to knock off a game Penn State team 32-23 as the Huskers looked like a different team in the final 30 minutes. Two touchdowns in the first five and a half minutes of the second half in addition to a questionable fumble call helped Nebraska win for the fourth straight time and keeps the drive to Indianapolis alive and well with two games to go.
Most of the chatter will be about the fumble with Penn State about to retake the lead, but Nebraska showed the grit and character required for second-half comebacks just as they had in wins over Wisconsin, Northwestern, and Michigan State. Nebraska was whipped in the first half, with Penn State hitting the first punch with Zach Zwinak’s 50 yard touchdown run up the middle to give the Nittany Lions the early 7-0 lead. Nebraska countered with its longest drive of the season, a 15-play, 51 yard effort that took 6:50 off the clock, but couldn’t find the end zone and had to settle for a 32-yard field goal from Brett Maher to draw within 7-3. Penn State would respond and drive deep into Nebraska territory, but Sean Fisher and Alonzo Whaley teamed up to knock the ball free from Zwinak and Will Compton recovered on the Husker 6.
Another long drive was in the works for Nebraska as a healthy dose of Ameer Abdullah, Braylon Heard, and Taylor Martinez runs got the offense down to the Penn State 8, but the Huskers again had to settle for three points instead of seven with Maher’s 27-yard field goal making it a 7-6 game early in the second quarter. While Penn State was getting some penetration with their front four, Abdullah was able to carve out 49 yards rushing on eight attempts as he was well on his way to another 100-yard game.
This is where the wind became a factor—gusts well over 35 miles per hour were the norm for the game—and stifled Nebraska along with the Penn State defense in a crucial second quarter that saw the Nittany Lions take their 20-6 advantage into halftime. Alex Butterworth flipped the field with the wind at his back and uncorked a 56 yard punt to put Nebraska back on its own 13. Nebraska went three and out, Penn State returned to the Nebraska 35 and put up a 27-yard field goal from Sam Ficken to take a 10-6 lead. The teams would exchange punts, but Tim Marlowe’s fumbled punt gave Penn State the ball on Nebraska’s 31 and the Nittany Lions would finally reach the end zone on Matt McGloin’s 11 yard touchdown pass to Jesse James. Things were not looking good and got even worse before halftime, as three straight incompletions gave Penn State the ball back with just over two minutes to play and Ficken tacked on a career-long 38-yard field goal as the Nittany Lions took their two-touchdown lead into the half.
Comebacks are the norm around these parts however, and the opening drive of the second half reminded the 85,522 in attendance that this game was far from over. The Huskers, who managed just 62 yards of offense in the second quarter, marched 75 yards in eight plays with Imani Cross going in from a yard out to draw the Huskers within 20-13. Six runs, two passes, and no negative plays helped Nebraska get off the mat to start the second half. Daimion Stafford and the Blackshirts didn’t waste any time, delivering a haymaker as McGloin was picked off by Stafford on the next drive and Nebraska was back in business at the Penn State 4. Two plays later, Cross barreled into the end zone for his second touchdown in a span of 2:11 as Nebraska and Penn State were all tied up at 20.
Credit Penn State however, as McGloin led the offense down the field in 13 plays to the Nebraska 18 before having to settle for a 35-yard field goal from Ficken to re-take the lead at 23-20. Zwinak added 33 yards to his game-high total of 141 on the day in this drive, often churning for extra yards after contact as Nebraska didn’t stop Zwinak for negative yards once on the afternoon. Nebraska would be poised to answer again, but was undone by a Martinez fumble to start the fourth quarter and preserve the 23-20 Nittany Lions lead. Penn State went three and out and Nebraska gained their first lead with Jamal Turner catching his second touchdown in as many weeks, a five-yarder from Martinez. While previous drives had relied on steady runs from Abdullah and Martinez, this drive was highlighted by a 56-yard pass from Martinez to Kyler Reed over the top of the defense down to the Penn State 10.
This is where things got even more interesting. McGloin was probably at his best on this drive since his first quarter performance as the senior hit Allen Robinson for 38 yards down to the Nebraska 17 to put the Nittany Lions in business again. Five plays later, disaster nearly struck for the Huskers, but instead fell upon the Nittany Lions. The play of the game was Matt Lehman’s fumble as he was going into the end zone that was recovered by the Huskers for a touchback and to preserve the Nebraska lead. Replays showed that Lehman still had the ball crossing the goal line as it was knocked loose by David Santos, but the booth did not overturn the call and upheld the play as called on the field. Nebraska dodged a major bullet as a touchdown would have changed the complexion of the final eight minutes.
Three plays and out for Nebraska on the ensuing drive, but with the wind at his back, Maher uncorked a 69-yard punt which put Penn State back on its own 2. Two plays later, McGloin was pressured in the endzone and forced into an intentional grounding penalty and a safety to extend the Nebraska lead to 29-23. Nebraska couldn’t put the game away then however, as they gave Penn State one more shot but the Blackshirts held and took over after a fourth-down stop and eventually put the game out of reach with Maher’s third field goal on the day, a 33-yarder to cap the scoring and give the Huskers a 32-23 win to remain atop the Legends Division standings.
Yes, the fumble from Lehman into the end zone will be the play most talked about from this game. Penn State had been able to answer the bell after driving most of the field and appeared ready to retake the lead for the second time in the second half. Lehman’s fumble took away six points and would eventually lead to a safety due to Maher’s punt, so there’s a big eight point swing at a crucial time in the game. After the fumble, Penn State was not the same on offense, as they would run just eight more plays the rest of the game for nine yards and not mount a serious challenge from that point forward. Momentum nearly derailed the Huskers in the first 30 minutes, but it proved to be their biggest ally in the final 30 minutes thanks to a punishing running game and that fortuitous call.
Give Nebraska credit however, as it made huge adjustments in its game plan coming out of the lockerroom. Martinez struggled in the second quarter, completing 3 of 10 passes as the Huskers fell behind by two touchdowns. The third quarter saw Nebraska run 22 plays for a total of 142 yards, 19 of those being running plays, and control the clock for nearly 10 minutes of the period. Penn State could only muster 57 yards of total offense in the quarter, as Nebraska hassled McGloin and kept Zwinak at bay for the most part. Lehman’s fumble changed the game, but it was one in which Nebraska was the better team for the final 30 minutes.
Onward, to the grades we go…
Nebraska’s ground game has been outstanding against very tough defensive lines the last three weeks, producing huge games against Michigan, Michigan State, and now Penn State. Except for a lull in the second quarter, the running game was there for the Huskers all game long, with Abdullah churning out 116 yards on 31 carries and Martinez racking up another 104 on the ground. Braylon Heard also got into the mix briefly in the first quarter with 25 yards of his own. Cross proved to be the trump card though when Nebraska needed it most, getting two touchdowns to start the third quarter and pick up a couple of other crucial first downs. The Huskers converted 9 of 18 on third downs as well.
While Martinez didn’t throw any interceptions, his fumble at the start of the fourth quarter kept Nebraska from retaking the lead or tying the game. The offensive line was overwhelmed at times, but was able to control the line of scrimmage in the second half as Abdullah and Martinez ran through some nice openings. The time of possession was also in Nebraska’s favor to the tune of a 34:19-25:41 advantage. Considering that Penn State has a propensity to storm out of the gates and beat up on teams in the first quarter, Nebraska probably should have been ahead once the first 15 minutes were over. I liked how the offense kept running pitch plays to the right and dared Penn State to stop it and they couldn’t—that’s the sign of a confident, successful team and conjures up images of the glory days of Nebraska football. If the Huskers could have finished off those field goal drives with touchdowns, we’d go for an A here, but we’ll give the offense a B.
A mixed bag here, as the Blackshirts were put in some pretty tough spots, especially in the second quarter. Zwinak’s 50-yard run up the middle on the first drive of the game was a bit alarming, as Nebraska would have trouble with the barreling sophomore all day long. McGloin entered the game completing 62 percent of his passes and would go 18-of-37 on the day for 240 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Penn State’s tempo bothered Nebraska in the second quarter, but the Blackshirts were able to get things under control in the second half. The Huskers forced three turnovers on the afternoon, with all of them being significant in the game.
Ciante Evans got the start at cornerback and turned in another fine performance, tying Will Compton for the team lead with 10 tackles. Entering the game, McGloin had been sacked 13 times all season and the Blackshirts got to him three times on the afternoon with Baker Steinkuhler, Cameron Meredith, and Eric Martin all getting sacks. Penn State converted on 6 of 15 of its third down attempts and could not on its lone fourth down try. It was a more well-rounded effort from the Blackshirts this week versus last week’s game against Michigan State, we’ll give the defense a B+.
The Special Teams
The good for Nebraska was that Maher’s punting led directly to the safety in the fourth quarter with the Huskers clinging to a four point lead. The bad for Nebraska is that the wind gave Penn State short fields twice in the second quarter after short Maher punts and Marlowe’s fumble gave the Nittany Lions seven points more as Penn State jumped to the 20-6 halftime lead. The return game was non-existent yet again; even with the wind in the fourth quarter, Butterworth hit a 48-yarder that Abdullah couldn’t field and gave the Huskers a longer field to work with.
Save for Maher’s three field goals and booming 69-yard game-changing punt in the fourth quarter, this would likely be an F for the special teams. As is stands however, we’ll dole out a very unimpressive D+. Yes, the wind makes things difficult, but Nebraska did not deal with it as well as Penn State did.
A friend of the column tweeted during the game that this year’s Nebraska team reminded him of playing at the blackjack tables. Sure, you might get on a hot streak, but eventually your luck would run out. That’s entirely correct, however, it’s also entirely correct that when you’re on an epic hot streak, you milk it for all its worth. Nebraska seems to be doing this, by overcoming another double-digit deficit and staying in control of their destiny for the remainder of the Big Ten season. The four-game stretch of Northwestern, Michigan, Michigan State, and Penn State provided unique challenges for the Huskers to overcome and each time they did so. The only thing you fear in the next two weeks, with a trip to Indianapolis and the conference championship so close at hand, is going bust in unexpected fashion.
This is all coming with an offense that is missing its best player and certainly one of its most trusted leaders, in Rex Burkhead. Can you imagine a backfield that sees Burkhead and Abdullah split about 40 carries a game? Regardless, Abdullah continues to prove that he’s been more than an adequate replacement as the number one option in the running game and closing in on 1,000 yards for the season to boot. Even without Burkhead, the offense has moved the ball with almost stunning success against some of the top defensive units in the country. Turnovers continue to be a concern, but you have to take the bad with the good.
Minnesota and Iowa await in the next two weeks. The Gophers became bowl eligible with a 17-3 win over a hapless Illinois team Saturday while the Hawkeyes slumped to 4-6 on the season with a stunning 27-24 loss at home to a putrid Purdue squad. Northwestern nearly toppled Michigan at the Big House, but the Wolverines somehow emerged with a tying field goal in the dying moments of regulation and won the game 38-31 in overtime to keep the pressure on Nebraska. The Wolverines end the season with the Hawkeyes at home next week before their regular season finale at Ohio state. Wisconsin emphatically clinched their spot in Indianapolis with a 62-14 thrashing of Indiana in Bloomington behind a running game that amassed a mind-boggling 564 yards.
Clearly, Nebraska has lived a charmed life, but the thread in their comebacks has remained largely the same—it’s a team that doesn’t panic when it’s behind and it’s a team that makes plays when it matters the most. The fumble may have changed the game, but Nebraska had been knifing through Penn State’s defense for most of the second half, so it’s pretty tough to say it cost the Nittany Lions the game…although those in Happy Valley would likely disagree. Even McGloin felt Penn State got the shaft, saying “we’re not going to get that call here. We’re not going to get that call ever, against any team. It doesn’t matter who the referees are, we’ll never get that call.” Clearly, Penn State has not only the confidence that they’ll win each week this season, but they expect to win every week too.
But it wasn’t meant to be against the Huskers, who will roll on and face Minnesota in a week’s time. I don’t envision the Huskers having to try for their fifth victory in which they’ve trailed by double digits against Minnesota next Saturday, but at this point I wouldn’t rule anything out. For a team that was once so maligned for losing its cool when the going got tough, this year’s team has kept its cool and carved out some memorable victories. They’re two more away from playing for its first conference title since 1999 and a potential trip to the Rose Bowl.