By: NU Athletic Communications
Lincoln - In a tale of two very different halves, Nebraska's defense held on fourth down on back-to-back drives inside the Husker 11-yard line to secure a 30-23 win over Penn State at Memorial Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
Nebraska's impressive defensive stands in the final four minutes came after Penn State threatened to erase a 27-6 halftime advantage for the Big Red, which won its 2020 home opener to improve to 1-2 on the year. The Huskers sent the Nittany Lions back to State College with an 0-4 record.
The Husker defense put up heroic efforts from start to finish, but none were bigger than a Luke Reimers sack of Penn State's Will Levis on 3rd-and-Goal at the NU 9 with 48 seconds left, as Nebraska held a tenuous 30-23 lead. The Reimers sack set up 4th-and-13, and senior defensive lineman Ben Stille put the exclamation point on the win with his hit on Levis to force a flailing, desperation toss that fell incomplete in the middle of the field.
The first back-to-the-wall stand by the defense came on Penn State's previous drive, which was set up by the biggest play from the Nittany Lion defense when Jaysen Owen hit Luke McCaffrey as he threw and the pass floated to the flat, where it was picked off by Brandon Smith at the Nebraska 48 with 7:39 left. Levis led the Lions to 1st-and-10 at the NU 11, but the Huskers forced four consecutive incompletions, culminating with a Marquel Dismuke breakup.
Dismuke was a dominant force, recording a career-high 15 tackles from his safety spot, including a tackle for loss to go along with his breakup. Will Honas added a big game of his own, notching 13 tackles and a hurry, while fellow linebacker JoJo Domann contributed 12 tackles including two for loss. Collin Miller gave the Huskers four players with double-figure tackles with 10 and a breakup.
Offensively, redshirt freshman McCaffrey picked up a victory in his first career start, completing 13-of-21 passes for 152 yards and a touchdown. He also rushed 13 times for 67 yards and another score. Sophomore Wan'Dale Robinson added a season-high 16 carries out of the backfield for 60 yards, while adding five receptions for 11 yards. As a team, the Huskers managed 298 yards of total offense, including 146 rushing yards.
Nebraska's defense bent but didn't break for most of the game and added two big plays that turned into points as well. The Husker defense spent 91 plays on the field as the Nittany Lions racked up a 36:24-23:36 edge in time of possession, but surrendered just two touchdowns and three field goals.
Not only did the defense hold down the stretch, it contributed in a major way to Nebraska's 27-6 halftime lead.
Nebraska dominated the scoreboard from start to finish in the first half, despite Penn State holding a commanding 18:48-11:12 edge in time of possession. In his first career start, McCaffrey engineered a crisp, up-tempo 11-play, 75-yard drive that culminated with his one-yard touchdown plunge to give the Big Red a 7-0 lead just 3:35 into the game. On the drive, McCaffrey completed 4-of-5 passes for 45 yards and ran three times for 24 yards, including a nifty 12-yard run to convert on 3rd-and-11 as Nebraska approached the red zone.
On Penn State's ensuing drive, Husker defensive back Cam Taylor-Britt picked off an errant Clifford pass and sprinted 55 yards down the East sideline before being tackled. Taylor-Britt's fourth career interception and first this season set McCaffrey and the Nebraska offense up at the PSU 15. The Huskers gained 10 yards but were unable to punch the drive into the end zone, settling for Connor Culp's 22-yard field goal to put Nebraska up 10-0 with 6:14 left in the opening quarter.
Taylor-Britt finished the game with four tackles and a breakup, while also providing blanket coverage on Penn State star receiver Jahan Dotson, who had just two catches for 27 yards. Taylor-Britt added a key 25-yard punt return that set up Nebraska's final score of the first half. He also returning a missed Penn State 57-yard field goal 34 yards early in the second half.
Penn State starting quarterback Sean Clifford consumed a ton of clock on a 14-play, 66-yard drive to close the first quarter and trickle into the second period, but the Husker defense held on third down to force a 33-yard field goal by Jake Pinegar to put Penn State on the board with 14:50 left in the half.
The Husker offense then took over and wasted little time in extending the lead on a three-play, 65-yard drive that took just 49 seconds, capped by Zavier Betts' 45-yard catch-and-run touchdown. The play was actually a one-yard forward pitch by McCaffrey that Betts took untouched into the end zone for his first career score to put the Big Red up 17-3.
The Nebraska defense took matters into its own hands on the next drive, as Deontai Williams sacked Clifford and forced a fumble, which he scooped up and raced 26 yards untouched into the end zone to give the Huskers a 24-3 edge with 11:29 left in the half.
Clifford gave way to Levis on the next drive, and the Nittany Lions clawed and pounded their way 52 yards in 13 plays. Penn State actually marched inside the Husker 10, but an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on a PSU offensive lineman after a failed third-down conversion pushed the Nittany Lions back. Pinegar was still able to connect on a 40-yard field goal to trim Nebraska's margin to 24-6.
The Huskers were forced to punt for the first time on the ensuing drive after crossing midfield, but the defense quickly forced Penn State's first punt as well. McCaffrey and the Huskers then converted the two-minute drill into points with an 11-play, 35-yard drive that consumed the final 1:39 of the half and resulted in Culp's 25-yard field goal to send Nebraska to halftime with a 27-6 lead.
The two teams exchanged unsuccessful second-half opening drives before Penn State cut the Husker lead to 27-13 on Keyvone Lee's 31-yard touchdown run with 7:51 left. Pinegar's 27-yard field goal 6:50 later sent the game to the fourth quarter with Nebraska leading 27-16.
The Huskers put together their only successful drive of the second half to open the fourth quarter, as McCaffrey led a 10-play, 63-yard march that used up 5:27 of the clock and resulted in Culp's third field goal of the game, a 30-yarder, to put Nebraska back in front by two touchdowns, 30-16 with 10:34 left.
But Penn State connected on its biggest play of the game just two plays later, as Levis hit tight end Pat Freiermuth on a 74-yard pass. The play by Freiermuth, who finished with game highs of seven receptions and 113 yards, set up Devyn Ford's five-yard touchdown run to cut the Big Red lead to 30-23 with 9:20 left.
Penn State finished with 501 total yards, including 310 yards on 50 plays in the second half alone. Nebraska managed just 95 yards on 24 plays after halftime, as Penn State outscored the Huskers 17-3 in the final 30 minutes.
Levis finished the game with 219 passing yards while going just 14-of-31 through the air. Clifford completed 5-of-8 passes for 37 yards before being relieved by Levis. Ford led the PSU ground game with 66 yards on 16 carries, including a score, while Levis added 61 yards on 18 carries. Caziah Holmes added 50 yards on four carries, while Lee contributed 49 yards and a touchdown on eight touches.
Nebraska returns to Big Ten road action next week for an 11 a.m. (CT) kickoff on Saturday at Illinois. The game with the Fighting Illini will be televised by the Big Ten Network.
Penn State 23
Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020
Memorial Stadium (Lincoln, Neb.)
First Quarter (NEB 10, PSU 0)
11:25 - NEB - Luke McCaffrey 1 run (Connor Culp kick), 11 plays, 75 yards, 3:35, NEB 7-0
6:14 - NEB - Culp 22 FG, 6 plays, 10 yards, 1:56, NEB 10-0
Second Quarter (NEB 27, PSU 6)
14:50 - PSU - Jake Pinegar 33 FG, 14 plays, 66 yards, 6:24, NEB 10-3
14:01 - NEB - Zavier Betts 45 pass from McCaffrey (Culp kick), 3 plays, 65 yards, 0:49, NEB 17-3
11:29 - NEB - Deontai Williams Jr. 26 fumble return (Culp kick), NEB 24-3
5:48 - PSU -Pinegar 40 FG, 13 plays, 52 yards, 5:41, NEB 24-6
0:00 - NEB - Culp 25 FG, 11 plays, 35 yards, 1:39, NEB 27-6
Third Quarter (NEB 27, PSU 16)
7:51 - PSU - Keyvone Lee 31 run (Pinegar kick), 6 plays, 82 yards, 2:53, NEB 27-13
1:01 - PSU - Pinegar 27 FG, 10 plays, 42 yards, 5:03, NEB 27-16
Fourth Quarter (NEB 30, PSU 23)
10:34 - NEB - Culp 30 FG, 11 plays, 63 yards, 5:27, NEB 30-16
9:20 - PSU - Devyn Ford 5 run (Pinegar kick), 4 plays, 75 yards, 1:14, NEB 30-23