Nebraska vs. Penn State Photo No. 9

Nebraska’s Casey Rogers (98) watches as Deontai Williams (8) recovers a fumble to return for a touchdown during the game against Penn State at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Nebraska football (1-2) earned its first win of the year on Saturday in the home opener against Penn State (0-4). The Huskers were underdogs heading into the contest, but came out victorious off the back of redshirt freshman quarterback Luke McCaffrey and impressive redzone stops from the defense. 

Here are three takeaways from the win: 

Defense steps up

Nebraska football’s strength under head coach Scott Frost has been perceived to be the offensive side of the ball. 

However, the defense was the group to step up on Saturday. 

Yes, the Blackshirts had some struggles. Penn State gained 501 total yards, the most any team has gained against Nebraska this year. On top of that, the defense had some embarrassing breakdowns that allowed the Nittany Lions to score 17 points in the second half and have a chance to tie the game at the end. 

Despite all of that, the Husker defense came up big when it mattered most. In the first quarter, an easy interception by junior cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt set Nebraska inside the redzone for a drive that ended in a field goal. In the second quarter, senior safety Deontai Williams strip-sacked Penn State junior quarterback Sean Clifford, then picked up the ball and ran for a touchdown. 

Nebraska’s secondary also held junior wide receiver Jahan Dotson, the Big Ten’s leader in receiving yards coming into the weekend, to two catches for 27 yards.

The defense’s biggest plays came down the stretch. After the Nittany Lions cut the deficit to 30-23, McCaffrey threw an interception in Husker territory. Penn State moved inside the Nebraska 15-yard line, but the Blackshirts forced four straight incompletions to force a turnover on downs. 

The Husker offense was forced to punt on the ensuing drive, and the Penn State offense charged right back down the field for one last scoring chance. The Nittany Lions had a first-and-goal from the Nebraska 9-yard line, and the Husker defense stepped up once again. 

The next four plays consisted of two straight incompletions, a sack and another incompletion on fourth down. Penn State’s play calling may have been suspect due to the fact that it had been averaging 4.7 yards per rush, but regardless, the Blackshirts were the reason Nebraska came out with the win.

Husker offense, Luke McCaffrey do enough to win, but need to improve

This week, McCaffrey earned the first start of his Husker career, and led Nebraska to 23 offensive points, including 20 in the first half. The Huskers hadn’t hit 20 points in either of their first two games. 

The young quarterback played well, completing 13-of-21 passes for 152 yards and a touchdown, along with 13 carries for 67 yards and another score. The offense had four plays of 20 or more yards, with three coming through the air and another on a McCaffrey run. 

Even with those explosive moments, it’s too early to say that the offense has shown significant improvement. The Huskers had their worst offensive yardage output of the year by far with 298 total yards. Nebraska averaged only five yards per play, the same number it had against Northwestern a week ago and less than the 5.5 yards per play they put up against Ohio State. 

Part of this was due to a horrid offensive performance in the second half. Nebraska’s last play of over 20 yards came on its first drive of the third quarter, and the team had 95 yards on four yards per play in the final two quarters. So far this year, Nebraska has averaged 370 yards per game, which is significantly less than the 417.1 yards per game it averaged last year.

McCaffrey played well enough to the point where his starting spot is probably safe, but wasn’t incredibly impressive either. On a fantastic first drive, he went 4-of-5 for 45 yards and ran it three times for 24 yards, including a 1-yard quarterback sneak for a touchdown. That drive accounted for nearly a third of his offensive yards. 

Over the rest of the game, he completed just over 56% of his passes and had 150 total yards, one touchdown and a fourth-quarter interception in Nebraska territory. Those stats include the 45-yard touchdown pass to freshman wide receiver Zavier Betts, which was essentially a handoff on a jet sweep. 

Of course, this doesn’t mean McCaffrey didn’t play well. No one on the team ran the ball nearly as well as McCaffrey, and junior wide receiver Kade Warner dropped an open touchdown in the endzone. It just means that the Nebraska offense needs to show more consistency over the rest of the season to keep winning games.  

This win is a small sign of possible improvement for the program

The Big Ten has been confusing this year. Penn State is 0-4 now after starting the season ranked in the top 10. So, what does this win mean for Nebraska in the big picture?

Despite the comeback scare, Nebraska actually didn’t shoot itself in the foot too much with penalties and turnovers like it had done the past two weeks. When they really needed to, the Huskers stepped up. This is a change from last year as well, specifically from the games against Colorado and Purdue. 

Against the Buffaloes, Nebraska shot out to a 17-0 halftime lead. Colorado made a comeback, and in similar fashion to today’s game, the Huskers held a seven-point advantage midway through the fourth quarter. Unlike today, the Blackshirts weren’t able to hang on, and Colorado won in overtime. 

In the game against Purdue, Nebraska found itself in a slightly different spot. With Nebraska up 20-17 in the fourth quarter, Boilermaker freshman quarterback Jack Plummer went out with an injury. Third-string sophomore quarterback Aidan O’Connell finished off the drive with a touchdown, then after a Nebraska touchdown in response, led an 82-yard game-winning touchdown drive on the next possession to take a 31-27 lead.

Against a talented Nittany Lions team, Nebraska was able to close out defensively, something that the team struggled with last year.  

That being said, it should be taken into account that this was against a winless Penn State team that made several unforced errors. The back half of Nebraska’s schedule was considered to be significantly lighter than the first half, so it’s worth watching how the Huskers perform over the next four games.  

Nebraska’s next game will be at home against an Illinois team that sits at 1-3, with the only win coming against Rutgers today. The final three games will all be against division foes the Huskers lost to last year, those teams being Iowa, Purdue and Minnesota. 

If Nebraska can’t continue this momentum and at the very least go 2-2 down the stretch (not counting a to-be-determined week nine game), there are questions to be asked about how much progress the program has made.