UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Todd Blackledge shot 39 arrows at Nebraska’s defense for 60 minutes of emotion-tugging football Saturday.
The Penn State quarterback’s 39th pass struck in the heart. It wiped out what would have been remembered as one of Nebraska’s finest victories.
The final arrow was a 2-yarder for a touchdown to tight end Kirk Bowman with four seconds remaining.
It gave the Nittany Lions a 27-24 upset of the second-ranked Cornhuskers in a game that was a classic for its closing drama and controversial plays on Penn State’s drive for the winning touchdown.
It started when the Huskers kicked off after taking a 24-21 lead with 1:18 to play.
The kickoff went into the end zone and was downed for a touchback, but a 15-yard penalty for unnecessary roughness was against the Huskers’ David Ridder. It moved the ball from the Penn State 20 to the 35.
“The penalty that gave them 15 yards of field position was real critical,” Husker Coach Tom Osborne said.
It allowed the Lions to start from their 35 instead of the 20. It took Blackledge just 74 seconds to cover the 65 yards to the end zone.
The penalty, a catch by tight end Mike McCloskey at the Husker 2 and Bowman’s catch in the end zone are three plays on the winning drive that will be debated for some time.
McCloskey’s catch appeared to Husker defending ends Coach George Darling to be out of bounds.
“It didn’t look like there wasn’t any way he could be in bounds,” said Darlington, who watched the play from the NU coaches booth in the press box.
McCloskey said he was concerned about what the call would be.
“The refs said I was in,” McCloskey said.
“I saw some of the Nebraska players, and they looked pretty confident I was out. I was worried, but the ref came over and made the call.”
It wasn’t certain to Nebraska’s defenders that Bowman made a legal catch of the final pass.
“I had a real good view,” said Husker monster Kris Van Norman. “I couldn’t tell. I know what I would have called, but I’m a little biased. It was a judgment call. I’m trying to say he could have called it either way.”
Bowman, a junior from Mechanicsburg, Pa., was certain he made the catch.
“I had it,” he said. “I caught it about six inches above the ground. I was concerned the officials weren’t going to call it.”
Blackledge completed five of seven passes on the final drive.
From the 35, Blackledge completed his first pass, a 16-yarder to Skeeter Nichols. After an incompletion, he threw another 16-yarder to Kenny Jackson.
From that point, things started to look bleak for the Nittany Lions, who were at the Husker 33.
Jon Williams was thrown for a yard loss on a draw, and Blackledge threw two straight incompletions. It was fourth-and-11 at the 34.
Blackledge provided the magic that helped the Lions escape that predicament. He threw an 11-yarder to Jackson that needed a measurement. It was good for a first down by the length of the ball.
Blackledge then ran 6 yards. The next play was the controversial pass to McCloskey, who caught the ball at the Husker 2 with 9 seconds to play.
The next play was Blackledge’s touchdown pass to Bowman, who made a diving play. The touchdown signal produced a mob scene in the end zone. Nebraska’s defenders stood in stunned disbelief amidst the celebrating Lions, and fans who swarmed the field from the stands.
Osborne didn’t criticize the call.
“I can’t comment,” he said. “I was at field level. It was pretty dark. The officials were there. They’re supposed to make the call. Once it’s ruled good, it doesn’t make any difference.”
The game was billed as a battle of offensive powerhouses and didn’t disappoint. One surprise was that Nebraska joined Penn State in doing most of its damage through the air.
Husker junior Turner Gill was near Blackledge’s equal. Gill threw 34 passes, completing 16 for 239 yards and two touchdowns. Blackledge hit 23 of 39 for 295 yards and three scores.
“It wasn’t that the running game was shut down,” said Dave Rimington, Nebraska’s center. “We found a weakness in their pass defense, and just started capitalizing.”
Gill might have been this game’s hero on any other day. He directed the Cornhuskers from a 21-7 deficit in the third quarter to the lead.
It seemed that Nebraska had pulled out a great victory when Gill scored on a 1-yard sneak with 1:18 left in the game. He drove the Huskers 80 yards on 13 plays to put Penn State behind in the game for the first time at 24-21.
Gill completed a 13-yard pass to Todd Brown, an 18-yarder to Jamie Williams, an 11-yarder to Mitch Krenk and a 13-yarder to Irving Fryar.
He followed that with a 12-yard run to the Lions’ 3 that set up his touchdown.
“I was somewhat relieved at the end there,” said Osborne. “But I wasn’t really that comfortable because I knew they had the capability to go the length of the field. It looked like time would help us.”
Charlie McBride, Nebraska’s defensive coordinator, said the Husker strategy was to prevent the deep pass.
“We let them have their short stuff and really play for the deep ball,” McBride said. “It just didn’t work out.”
McBride also said it was pointless to dispute the key calls.
“We shouldn’t have let them down there in that situation anyway,” he said. “We weren’t good enough.”
The Husker defense was hampered by injuries. Cornerback Allen Lyday wasn’t in the game on the final drive because of a bruised leg. Doug Hermann, the regular defensive tackle, didn’t play at all because of a leg injury.
“We were a little thin in the defensive line,” Osborne said. “That made it real difficult because we had to rush the passer so much. That takes a lot out of your linemen. They were getting pretty tired.”
Nebraska tried a little of everything to pressure Blackledge, but never did sack him.
“Their pass protection was really excellent,” Osborne said. “We just couldn’t get much heat on him.”
Osborne said the Cornhuskers blitzed 30 or 40 percent of the time.
McBride gave Blackledge credit for keeping his poise under the pressure Nebraska did apply.
“Blackledge is the difference in their team,” McBride said.
With Blackledge completing 11 of 21 passes for 174 yards, the Nittany Lions dominated play in the first half.
Penn State took a 14-0 lead on a 14-yard touchdown pass from Blackledge to Bowman in the first quarter, and a 2-yard run by Curt Warner in the second quarter.
Nebraska made it 14-7 at half by driving 80 yards on seven plays, all passes. It took the Huskers just 67 seconds to get the score, a 30-yard pass from Gill to Fryar.
“I don’t think there was any question that Penn State was a better team than we were in the first half,” McBride said.
The Lions could have had a much bigger lead. Freshman Massimo Manca missed three field goals, and Blackledge had two touchdown passes on the same drive wiped out by penalties.
“We were very sporadic in the first half,” Osborne said. “We had problems with turnovers and consistency.”
The Huskers did lose two fumbles in the first half. Nebraska worked out its offensive problems at halftime with an emphasis on the pass.
The Huskers, normally a running team of note, gained more yards in the air than they did on the ground, 239 to 233.
Nebraska was the nation’s offensive leader entering the game with averages of 510 rushing and 593 total offense.
Penn State gained 505 total yards - 295 passing and 210 rushing.
Nebraska opened the second half with momentum. The Huskers drove to the Penn State 18 with the help of a 45-yard gain by Fryar on a reverse before being stopped. The drive produced nothing when a bad snap foiled a field goal attempt.
Penn State kept on the attack by turning its next drive into a quick touchdown. The Lions went 83 yards in six plays, scoring on an 18-yard pass from Blackledge to Jackson.
Jackson caught five of Blackledge’s passes for 73 yards. Gregg Garrity had five for 75, McCloskey four for 68 and Warner three for 47.
Fryar was Nebraska’s leader with seven for 112.
“it was a game where we had to try not to get down when they scored,” Fryar said. “We were up and down, up and down. We had a big up, and all of a sudden a big letdown.”
Fryar became upset during Penn State’s postgame celebration and took a swing at a Nittany Lion fan. The field was overrun by spectators and one goal post was torn down.
Fryar said he reacted because the fan had taunted him.
After Penn State took its 21-7 lead, Nebraska got back in contention with an 80-yard drive to a 2-yard touchdown on a pass by Rozier, who led the Husker runners with 86 yards on 16 carries. Gill had 52 yards on 12 attempts.
Nebraska reduced Penn State’s lead to 21-17 on Kevin Seibel’s 37-yard field goal with 13:02 left in the fourth quarter.
In the end, the Huskers gave Penn State too much time for their final drive.
“We really didn’t score too quickly,” Fryar said. “We got the ball with 6:52 left and held it until 1:18. It was just a matter of who got the ball last.”
|Yards per carry||5.1||4.9|
Nebraska is 9-8 all-time against Penn State.
|New Mexico State||Sept. 18|
|Penn State||Sept. 25|
|Kansas State||Oct. 16|
|Oklahoma State||Nov. 6|
|Iowa State||Nov. 13|
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