It wasn’t going to be as easy in the second half as it was in the first for Nebraska football on Saturday afternoon against Penn State.
Everyone should’ve known that.
The Nittany Lions have essentially made it their MO in 2020 — stare at a double-digit deficit in the first half and try their best to overcome it in the second. Head coach James Franklin’s squad did it against Indiana, Ohio State and Maryland.
Add in the 27-6 first-half lead Nebraska built on Saturday, and Franklin’s squad has been down double-digits at halftime in each of the Nittany Lions’ first four games. And just like it’s done all year, Penn State almost came back.
Nebraska couldn’t have started the game better. Redshirt freshman quarterback Luke McCaffrey, making his first career start, marched Nebraska down the field on an 11-play, 75-yard opening drive, punctuated by a quarterback sneak for a touchdown.
The Husker defense had Penn State redshirt junior quarterback Sean Clifford flustered from the jump, and an inaccurate throw on an out route that was jumped by Nebraska junior cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt led to Nebraska taking a 10-0 lead.
Nebraska kept going. A Penn State field goal was followed by an electric touch pass from McCaffrey to freshman wide receiver Zavier Betts. On the ensuing Nittany Lion drive, Nebraska senior safety Deontai Williams made a spectacular play to strip the ball from Clifford and return it for another score. That turnover marked the end of Clifford’s day.
After the teams traded field goals, Nebraska found itself up 27-6 at halftime in a game it wasn’t even favored to win. With a quarterback making his first career start, the Huskers could afford to take their foot off the gas a bit, bleed some second-half clock perhaps.
The Huskers were comfortable. But perhaps, so too was Penn State.
Unsurprisingly, the team that makes a living in the second half slowly worked its way back into the game. Penn State turned to redshirt sophomore quarterback Will Levis, and he quickly made the game more competitive. A three-score lead quickly turned into a 30-23 game with over nine minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.
This Nebraska team has been in this situation before under head coach Scott Frost. The Huskers have blown two leads of at least two scores since 2018, and Nebraska’s head man began drawing parallels between Saturday’s contest and the most recent of such losses.
“We talked at halftime and I told [the team] that we’ve been in these situations before,” Frost said postgame. “When [Levis] broke a sack and hit that pass down the field and scored, it felt like the Colorado game.”
The play Frost is referencing is what ended up leading to the last score of the game, a five-yard touchdown run by sophomore running back Devyn Ford. This run was set up by a 74-yard pass from Levis to junior tight end Pat Freiermuth. After this, it certainly began to feel like last year’s Colorado game, in which the Huskers held a 17-point first-half lead before collapsing down the stretch.
Frost makes an apt comparison, but ultimately Saturday’s game ended like a much more recent affair. Nebraska ended up winning against Penn State where it lost against Northwestern — in the red zone.
This red zone ability occurred on both sides of the ball. A glance at Nebraska's red zone defense against the Nittany Lions comes nowhere near telling the full story. From the perspective of someone that didn’t tune into the game, Penn State’s offense scoring on four osix red zone drives may not seem impressive for the Blackshirts.
Holding an opponent to three points instead of seven is the difference between winning and losing, and time and time again the Blackshirts were able to deliver with their backs against the wall. Senior linebackers Jojo Domann and Will Honas, senior safety Marquel Dismuke, junior linebacker Pheldarius Payne and others helped hold the Nittany Lions to field goal after field goal through the first three quarters.
However, thanks to Nebraska doing next-to-nothing offensively in the second half and a McCaffrey interception with 7:39 left in the fourth quarter, the defense couldn’t rest on its laurels just yet. Levis quickly led Penn State inside Nebraska’s 20-yard line, where Franklin opted to have Levis test Nebraska’s secondary instead of running the ball.
Levis’ fourth-down pass fell incomplete, but the Nittany Lions had yet another chance to tie the game with 2:34 left following a Nebraska three-and-out. Again, Levis put Penn State in a position to win the game.
But just as Frost struggled to find ways to get Nebraska in the end zone last weekend, Franklin was unable to create a good-enough look for Levis to take advantage. Sophomore linebacker Luke Reimer, the team’s leading tackler against Northwestern, sacked Levis on a crucial third-and-goal on the Nebraska 9-yard line, and senior defensive lineman Ben Stille got enough pressure on Levis to seal a victory the following play.
In total, Penn State visited Nebraska’s red zone six times. The Nittany Lions scored 16 points on those trips, and none in the game’s two most important drives.
“I’m so impressed by our defense in the last quarter, all of them played their hearts out all game but those last two drives specifically,” McCaffrey said postgame. “It takes a weight off [the offense’s] shoulder when the defense is as stout as it was today.”
It’s a good thing they did, too. Nebraska gained just 95 yards in the second half to Penn State’s 310, and the Nittany Lions outscored the Huskers 17-3 in the final 30 minutes while maintaining the ball for five more minutes than Nebraska.
Add that together and you’d get exactly what the Huskers are right now: a talented-but-flawed team still learning how to piece together a complete 60 minutes of football. Nebraska had nearly everything to lose against Penn State and almost did so, which would’ve represented the biggest single-game collapse in program history.
Nebraska pulled through, though, led by a defense that stepped up in the clutch. Frost was finally able to deliver the Huskers a one-score victory, the first such Nebraska victory in over 365 days.
Beating a winless Penn State team isn’t a program-defining win by any stretch, but that doesn’t trivialize its importance. Nebraska needed this win badly, and a loss today could’ve been enough of a demoralizer to send the program into free-fall over the season’s final four games.
“The state needed this, the team needed this, I needed this,” Frost said postgame.
There’s an old adage that says something along the lines of, “losing teams make losing plays, and winning teams make winning plays.” Too often over the last three years has Nebraska been in close contests, but ultimately came up short due to turnovers, penalties or poor offensive execution.
It was nice to be on the other end of that for a couple of hours on Saturday afternoon.