Redshirt freshman Luke McCaffrey earned his first start for the Huskers on Saturday in their 30-23 win over Penn State. Nebraska and McCaffrey came out with all cylinders firing on an 11-play, 75-yard opening drive topped off with a McCaffrey 1-yard touchdown run.
In the second quarter, freshman wide receiver Zavier Betts took a touch pass from McCaffrey for a 45-yard score, extending Nebraska’s lead to 17-3. One of McCaffrey’s most impressive moments came on a left-handed pass towards the end of the first half to freshman running back Marvin Scott III for a 14-yard gain and a first down, with Penn State senior defensive lineman Fred Hansard actively tackling him.
During the first half, McCaffrey completed 10-of-15 passes for 132 yards and a touchdown. He slowed down in the second half, ending 13-of-21 for 152 yards. He added 67 yards on the ground and a score.
McCaffrey was also intercepted by Penn State sophomore linebacker Brandon Smith with 7:39 left in the fourth quarter while Nebraska was up 30-23, giving the Nittany Lions an opportunity to tie the game.
Despite his second half performance, McCaffrey added the spark that Nebraska head coach Scott Frost was searching for.
Running backs: C+
Senior Dedrick Mills rushed for 11 yards in the first quarter before sitting out the rest of the game due to an injury. Mills’ injury gave his backups, two freshmen, a chance to step up.
True freshman Marvin Scott III collected 25 total yards, including a 14-yard reception for a first down at the end of the second quarter. Freshman Ronald Thompkins added one attempt for 2 yards.
Sophomore wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson became Nebraska’s go-to back, replacing Mills and taking on a role similar to last season’s. Robinson rushed for 60 yards on 16 carries.
Yet again, Nebraska’s running backs have struggled with producing yards and running up the middle. Part of this issue can be credited to the offensive line, however, the backs need to find a way to explode.
Wide Receivers: B-
Freshman Zavier Betts led the wide receiver room in yards with 54 and earned his first career touchdown.
Robinson had 5 receptions for 11 yards. Because of Mills’ injury, he took on a more rushing heavy role, adding 60 of Nebraska’s 146 total rushing yards.
Senior Levi Falck had a 21-yard reception and senior captain Kade Warner had one reception for 13 yards. Warner missed a catchable ball in the end zone in the middle of the first quarter on third down, resulting in a field goal.
Tight Ends: B+
Junior Austin Allen had a career-high three catches against Penn State. He reined in a 25-yard catch despite being surrounded by Penn State defenders and taking a big hit in the first quarter, recording 39 total receiving yards.
Senior tight end Jack Stoll returned from injury and suited up against the Nittany Lions, but did not record a catch.
Offensive Line: C+
Nebraska’s offensive line helped the Huskers gain 146 rushing yards, their lowest total this season. Previously, Nebraska averaged 217 rushing yards per game in its losses to Ohio State and Northwestern. Nebraska’s running backs had little to no luck running up the middle, in part due to Penn State’s work on the defensive line and the Huskers’ struggles to generate running lanes at times.
The pocket around McCaffrey was not stable. Although Penn State’s defense only had one sack and one recorded quarterback hurry, McCaffrey was often forced out of the pocket due to pressure. On McCaffrey’s potential game-changing interception, he took a hit from a Penn State defender that caused his pass to float perfectly into a defender’s arms.
After not playing against Northwestern last Saturday, sophomore center Cam Jurgens returned and had a few bad snaps. One resulted in a delayed handoff to Scott on a third-and-two on the Penn State 7-yard line, causing a one yard loss.
Defensive Line: B-
Despite a poor showing in the second half, Nebraska’s defensive line stepped up when the Huskers needed a stop.
Senior defensive end Ben Stille pressured Penn State sophomore quarterback Will Levis on fourth and goal with 31 seconds left, forcing a half-hearted Levis pass attempt while falling to the ground. The ball barely left Levis’ hands, falling hopelessly to the ground to secure Nebraska’s first win of the season. Redshirt freshman defensive tackle Ty Robinson added four tackles.
The Huskers’ defensive line allowed 245 rushing yards. Penn State’s offensive line was able to create large holes for Levis and sophomore running back Devyn Ford, who rushed for 66 yards. Nebraska made plays when it needed to on the defensive line, but needs to do better at controlling the line of scrimmage and shutting down the opposing run game going forward.
Nebraska’s senior linebackers continued to dominate against the Nittany Lions.
Senior JoJo Domann had a direct effect on forcing two field goals, stopping Penn State twice on third-down opportunities in the red zone. He had 12 tackles and two tackles for loss. Fellow senior Will Honas tallied 13 tackles and one quarterback hurry. Collin Miller added 10 tackles and one quarterback hurry, the cherry on top of another strong performance by Nebraska’s strong linebacking core.
Sophomore Garrett Nelson had nine tackles, the team’s fifth-leading tackler on Saturday afternoon.
Two weeks in a row, Nebraska’s defense has relied on the play of its linebackers. They continued to step up and make plays against Penn State.
The Husker secondary forced two turnovers against Penn State, resulting in 10 points.
Junior cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt intercepted Penn State redshirt junior quarterback Sean Clifford in the first quarter and returned it 55 yards to the Nebraska 30-yard line. Senior kicker Connor Culp capped the drive with a 22-yard field goal.
Senior safety Deontai Williams forced a fumble from Clifford by punching the ball out of his hands and scooping it up for a 26-yard touchdown. Williams also recorded three tackles, one sack and one tackle for loss.
The Husker secondary got burned on a 74-yard catch by junior tight end Pat Freiermuth which led to a touchdown two plays later to cut Nebraska’s lead to 30-23. Penn State freshmen running backs Caziah Holmes and Keyvone Lee both had runs of over 30 yards.
Special Teams: B-
Culp had three field goals and went 3-for-3 on extra point attempts. Sophomore Will Przystup punted four times for 162 yards with a long of 53 yards, placing two inside the 20-yard line.
Taylor-Britt returned a punt 25 yards late in the second quarter, starting the Husker offense at the Penn State 42-yard line.
Nebraska allowed a 21-yard punt return by junior wide receiver Jahan Dotson with six minutes left in the third quarter. Ford had two kick returns for 36 yards. Defending against the punt and kick returns brought down the special teams grade despite the dependable performances of Culp and Przystup.