Nebraska fans were over the moon in the first half, watching NU out-play Penn State and take a 27-6 lead into the half. Then, the familiar second-half doldrums and catastrophic defensive breakdown came back, and Nebraska gave Penn State two legit shots to send the game into overtime.
But the defense held both times, keeping the Lions off the board in two first-and-goal situations, and salting away head coach Scott Frost’s first win in 2020.
So in reviewing Nebraska’s nail-biter against Penn State …
Luke’s Team. Frost made a bold choice in benching Adrian Martinez for Luke McCaffrey – although given Martinez’s struggles going back to last year, it would have been hard to make any other decision. The decision paid off, with McCaffrey delivering decisiveness, footspeed, accuracy, and good decision-making
Special Teams. Hey, remember last year when Nebraska was literally pulling people off the street to fill in kicking roles? This year, both spots have been manned well, with Connor Culp as placekicker and Will Pryztup at punter. Culp didn’t do anything remarkable, but was incredibly reliable, going 3-for-3 on field goals and 3-for-3 on extra points. Even though none of the field goals were longer than 30 yards, the point is that he made them all … and kept Penn State at sufficient arms’ length to avoid yet another devastating collapse.
And when Nebraska’s offense went three-and-out late in the game and was set to give Penn State the ball back with a chance to tie, Pryztup uncorked a 53-yard punt that required a fair catch, making the Lions go 69 yards to tie the game. As we saw, Penn State was able to get most of that distance – but not all of it.
Last year, that wasn’t the case. And not having those quietly competent specialists could easily have been the difference between victory and defeat in a game like this for Nebraska.
Meaningless Stat. Penn State had 501 total yards to Nebraska’s 298 – and lost by seven. Last week, Nebraska had 442 yards to Northwestern’s 317 last week – and lost by eight.
It’s almost like total yardage is a pretty meaningless statistic. It’s not quite like a Win in baseball, but please keep in mind that total yardage can be incredibly misleading. In many ways, Nebraska beat Penn State in the same manner that Northwestern beat Nebraska last week – by forcing the opponent to be methodical down the field, and preventing touchdowns in the red zone.
Second Half Struggles. Nebraska has played three games in 2020. It has scored six points – in total – in the second half. That works out to 0.067 points per minute. Nebraska’s run a total of 95 second-half plays, yielding 0.063 points per play.
That’s … bad.
Thankfully Nebraska had a big enough first half lead to survive the second half offensive power outage – as well as facing an opponent somehow worse in the red zone than NU. While a win like this is critical for the team’s psyche, Nebraska can’t just cede the second half offensively if it wants to turn that mythical corner.
Staying Sharp. Nebraska’s still struggling with getting correct personnel in on offense, even coming out of stoppages of play. It wasn’t nearly the struggle it had been in weeks past, but those are the kinds of mistakes that just simply shouldn’t happen at all.
Converting. Much like last week, third down and red zone conversions for Nebraska were anemic. Nebraska was 4-for-12 on third downs, and 1-for-4 in touchdowns scored in the red zone. Both of those statistics are a big reason why Penn State was able to mount a comeback and – almost – snatch a victory away from Nebraska.
AND THE FOOT IN THE GROUND
Well, there it is, Husker Fan. We’ve talked a lot here about how winning begets winning. Now – finally – Nebraska has gotten a payoff for all its hard work. Now there’s some confidence that can build from a win over a marquee team.
Yes, I know Penn State is 0-4, but it’s still Penn State. There’s still NFL guys – a bunch of them – that were on the field trying to muster that comeback. And, finally, Nebraska was in a tight spot and made the winning play instead of having the winning play made against it.
The closest thing Nebraska had to that kind of a result was last year’s 13-10 thriller over Northwestern. Given how anemic Nebraska’s offense was in that game, it was hard to see it as a turning point – and with Nebraska getting bullied by Minnesota the following week, 34-7, it clearly wasn’t.
This feels a little different. Nebraska really dominated Penn State in the first half. Then, the calamitous find-a-way-to-lose Nebraska showed up in the second half. But the defense bowed up, again and again, and made two goal line stands to preserve a win.
So, let’s see if this is when Nebraska as a program finally puts a metaphorical foot in the ground to change direction. Next week Illinois comes to town, coming off its first win of the season after handing the starting quarterback job to dual threat freshman Isaiah Williams.
The opportunity is there for Nebraska to get only its fourth back-to-back winning streak in Frost’s tenure. A win over Illinois – a team that Nebraska has the talent to beat – puts Nebraska at .500 going into Black Friday against Iowa.
Nebraska got the win it desperately needed, to put confidence and hope into a battered program. Let’s see if that foot in the ground holds, and Nebraska can build on this victory to change the direction of the program.