Fireworks fired off into a sunny sky as the clock hit double zeros in front of a quiet stadium. Instead of the screams of 90,000 fans, the only cheers that were heard came from the Nebraska players that ran onto the field.
“I'm so happy for the kids. So happy for the coaching staff. So happy for Nebraska fans that have been waiting on this as impatiently as I have”, Nebraska head coach Scott Frost said. “...The state needed it. The team needed it. I needed it."
Fans did not see how local state products like sophomore linebacker Luke Reimer and senior defensive end Ben Stille role in the final goal line stand or true freshman wide receiver Zavier Betts’ 45-yard touchdown catch. The anticipation built up in the stadium when redshirt freshman quarterback Luke McCaffrey was named starter. And there was no long and probably overdone Luke chant.
A fantastic first half was followed by a nerve-ridden second, with Frost desperate for his first win of the year.
“We talked at halftime and I talked to them frankly, that we'd been in this situation before,” Frost said. “When we came off coverage and missed a sack and they threw a long pass down to the one, [it] felt like the Colorado game a year ago. You need to learn how to win.”
Nebraska was still up 30-23 in the fourth quarter after the 74-yard pass that Frost described and the ensuing touchdown run. Then, McCaffrey threw his worst pass of the game at the worst time. He was hit as he threw the ball, and the pass floated into the arms of a Penn State defender, giving the Nittany Lions a chance to tie the game at 30-30 and overcome a three-touchdown halftime deficit.
Taking over at Nebraska’s 49, Penn State took 11 plays to get to the Husker 11-yard line, and now was in striking distance to finally tie the game. Sophomore quarterback Will Levis led the comeback after replacing junior quarterback Sean Clifford following his lost fumble that turned into a Nebraska touchdown.
Nebraska’s defense was pushed far too much in the game, but in the red zone, on this drive, the Huskers held their ground.
On Levis’ potential game-tying drive, the Huskers forced four consecutive incompletions to force a turnover on downs. Nebraska had the ball with over three minutes left, but that would not be the last time Levis and Nebraska collided in the red zone in the game.
Nebraska and Penn State came into Memorial Stadium winless and starved for a victory. Levis wasn’t the only new quarterback to take over for his team, as the Huskers made the decision to start McCaffrey over struggling junior quarterback Adrian Martinez and a decision Frost said was one of the hardest decisions he’s made as a coach.
“We found out a little bit earlier in the week when we were gameplanning” McCaffrey said. “It’s an honor to be on the field with these guys and this team specifically.”
The Huskers came out swinging with a quick opening drive to take a 7-0 lead, capped off by a one-yard quarterback sneak by McCaffrey. With Clifford as the starter, the Nittany Lions’ offense lost control.
On Penn State’s opening drive, Clifford threw a wildly inaccurate pass to an open junior wide receiver Jahan Dotson that led to a 55-yard interception return by junior cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt. After that, sophomore receiver Wan’Dale Robinson had four straight touches in the following five-play Nebraska drive.
A 23-yard field goal by Connor Culp made it 10-0 in the first quarter and after Penn State stalled near the red zone, it cut the lead to 10-3 with a field goal of its own.
Then, chaos struck.
Nebraska struck fast with a 49-second touchdown drive. A shovel pass to freshman wide receiver Zavier Betts turned into a 45-yard touchdown that gave the Huskers a 17-3 lead.
Clifford’s final drive turned into a scoop-and-score for Nebraska as senior safety Deontai Williams strip-sacked Clifford and recovered his own forced fumble for a touchdown. This left the score 24-3 Nebraska with 11:20 left in the second quarter, and Penn State put in Levis on the next drive, which ended with a field goal.
A blowout was brewing, and after a McCaffrey left-handed throw to freshman running back Marvin Scott III safely put Nebraska in field goal range, the Huskers took a 27-6 lead. It looked like an easy win was coming for the Huskers.
Nebraska had 203 yards, three penalties and no turnovers in the first half. The fortunes didn’t last long for Nebraska in the second half. After a missed 56-yard Penn State field goal, the Huskers stalled after a 22-yard McCaffrey run on the first play of their first second half drive. This is when the match started to turn.
“Maybe I got a little too conservative this time,” Frost said. “We got ahead and the last thing I wanted to do was give up points and take any chances with the ball. Our gameplan shifted from being aggressive and taking shots to trying to manage the game and make sure we didn’t give it away.”
Without its top two running backs, Penn State had struggled to run the ball in its first three games, yet had run for 120 yards in the first half against the Huskers. Despite being down by 21, the Nittany Lions continued to run the ball, and a 31-yard touchdown run by freshman Keyvone Lee gave Penn State its first touchdown of the game with 7:51 to go in the third quarter.
Up 27-13, Nebraska elected to put the ball into McCaffrey's hands. A bad Jurgens snap caused a loss of five yards for McCaffrey on first down and, despite a manageable 3rd-and-5, McCaffrey was sacked to end the drive.
Nebraska went three-and-out, and a comfortable Nebraska lead was suddenly brought back to reality. Penn State leaned on its ground game again to drive down the field after Dotson’s 21-yard punt return got it to the Penn State 48.
Unlike the last drive, Penn State settled for its fourth field goal attempt. The Nittany Lions ran the ball on the final eight plays of the drive, but within Nebraska’s 10-yard line, Levis was held to negative three yards and the Blackshirts continued to lock Dotson down.
“On the backend, we feel that everything is on us,” junior cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt said. “If something breaks loose, we have to be there. If they throw the ball in there, we have to be there. We really just take pride in that.”
Dotson, the Big Ten’s leading receiver coming into this weekend, had just two catches for 27 yards on seven targets, including a couple failed goal-line fades. Nebraska’s only sustained drive of the second half gave the Huskers a 30-16 lead but also gave Penn State the chance to get one step closer to the comeback.
Then, an unfortunate series of events happened for the Huskers. Levis hit a 74-yard completion to junior tight end Pat Freiermuth that put the Nittany Lions at Nebraska’s one-yard line, before a touchdown run by sophomore Devyn Ford made the game 30-23.
McCaffrey’s interception on the following drive was followed with another red zone stop for Nebraska, this time giving the Husker offense the ball with 3:37 left and only one job: kill the clock. The Huskers went 3-and-out, only taking 1:03 off the clock.
69 yards stood between a potential overtime and a Nebraska win. At that point, Penn State had outgained Nebraska by over 100 yards and dominated possession time with 35 total minutes. The Husker defense was gassed and with no hesitation, Penn State drove from its own 31 to Nebraska’s 9-yard line with just less than a minute to go.
The game was in Levis’ hands. At this point, Penn State already had 504 yards on 87 plays. But, in the last four plays, the Nittany Lions went backwards.
“We just got a sip of water and that’s all we needed,” junior cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt said. “We wanted to be the ones to finish the game off.”
Nebraska’s defense stopped a Dotson fade and, on the final two plays, two local Nebraska players, sophomore linebacker Luke Reimer and senior defensive end Ben Stille, decided the game.
Reimer’s third-down sack and then a Stille hurry on fourth down forced a Levis throw to fall short, dashing Penn State’s comeback attempt and giving Nebraska its first win of 2020.
“I think that’s a huge part of growing as a program. Just being able to make plays with the game on the line,” Stille said. “[Frost] was definitely really excited and he said we about gave him a heart attack. He was excited with how we finished the game.”