Matt McGloin dumped off a pass to tight end Matt Lehman, hoping to do what no Big Ten team other than Ohio State has been able to do this season: stop a second-half Nebraska rally.
Lehman caught the ball and charged for the end zone. Nebraska linebacker David Santos, along with a swarm of Huskers, surrounded Lehman, popping the ball free just as it touched the goal line.
Too close to call. The referees, who called the play a fumble recovered by Nebraska, would need to take another look.
A touchdown would retake the lead for Penn State, with a fumble providing a monumental momentum boost for the game-leading Huskers. The game film, which appeared to indicate a touchdown by a slim margin, was ruled indisputable by referees. Nebraska was awarded possession, momentum and eventually a 32-23 win.
“Something that is that bang-bang usually ends up going how they ruled it on the field,” coach Bo Pelini said of the play. “We were kind of fortunate that they called it that way out there on the field.”
“I’m sure there are some people that will call it lucky,” defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. “I call it toughness … bottom line: We got a fumble, and we recovered it.”
Lehman’s fumble came one possession after Nebraska (8-2, 5-1 Big Ten) had taken a 27-23 lead against Penn State (6-4, 4-2). Jamal Turner, who caught the game-winning touchdown catch to beat Michigan State last week, caught the go-ahead touchdown Saturday on a five-yard catch to bring the Huskers ahead after trailing 20-6 at halftime.
After the Penn State fumble, the Huskers added a safety, thanks to an intentional grounding penalty in the end zone by McGloin, and a field goal to go up by nine points with 2:16 to play.
“To pull even at nine-something, basically within the first six minutes (of the fourth quarter), was big for us psychologically,” Pelini said. “That helped us. It was big.”
The come-from-behind win was the fourth second-half comeback win this season and the third 14-plus point comeback. Before the 2012 season, the Huskers have overcome only four 14-point deficits since 1951.
“Look at the scores every week,” Papuchis said. “It’s hard to win. We found a way to win four in a row in some dramatic fashion. But I’ll never apologize for the way that we win. We strive to be the best that we can be each and every week.”
The Huskers found their path to victory behind a rush-heavy offense. Nebraska entered the game ranked in the top-10 in rushing, and ran the ball 57 times, compared to 20 passes, totaling 267 yards on the ground.
Penn State, whose offense relies much more heavily on the arm of their quarterback, opted to throw the ball 37 times, compared to 34 rushes, alternating between fighting and favoring the 35 mph wind blowing through Memorial Stadium.
Despite the strong wind, Penn State was able to gain a 14-point halftime lead behind 10-18 passing from McGloin, totaling 160 first-half yards. The difference came in the second half when Nebraska limited Penn State to 80 passing yards and 81 rushing yards.
Defensive end Cameron Meredith said a lot of the improvement in the second half was because of the team adapting better to Penn State’s surprisingly fast tempo.
“We made it more basic for us so we could attack the hurry up,” Meredith said. “It helped us out a lot especially at halftime – we knew that was the big problem. We said if they’re going really fast, then play over.”
What the game seemed to boil down to, though, was one play – the Lehman fumble. McGloin tweeted out a picture after the game showing the replay and maintained that he thought the play should have been a touchdown.
“We’re not going to get that call here,” McGloin said. “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.”
A key stat entering the game was turnovers. Penn State had a +9 turnover margin, while Nebraska was -9 entering Saturday. But by the time the game ended, the Huskers came out on top, intercepting McGloin once and forcing two fumbles, winning 3-2 on turnovers.
“Turnovers are everything,” Meredith said. “Offensively, you don’t want them because it kills games and defensively if you create them, then it’s a game changer. We had a pick and two fumbles. It just changed the momentum of the game for either side.”
“If you turn the ball over three times, you can’t win against a team like (Nebraska),” McGloin said. “They’ll find a way to win.”