UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — NJU, NKU, NLU. In these three sections, an end zone upper deck of Beaver Stadium, sat small, lonely clumps of soaked Nebraska fans. They bore waterlogged witness to what’s sure to be the final road game of the Mike Riley era, a 56-44 Penn State win that wore on for nearly four hours but didn’t require a crystal ball to predict.
To the repeated canned growl of a Nittany Lion sound effect, Penn State’s hot knife offense melted Bob Diaco’s Blackshirt butter — 609 total yards, including 263 on the ground. Nebraska’s offense struggled for much of the first half until quarterback Tanner Lee, one week after a concussion, led five spirited second-half touchdown drives, some against Penn State backups.
“I was proud of our team and coaches for staying in it and getting some stuff going,” Riley said. “The guys kept competing to get some stops and score some points in the second half. I’m glad we did that.”
Still, Nebraska lost by double digits because it allowed 50 points for the third time this season. That hadn’t happened since 1943.
The second-half surge — and Lee’s 399-yard, three-touchdown game — is of small consolation as NU enters its season-ending tilt with rival Iowa. The Penn State loss almost certainly eliminates Nebraska (4-7, 3-5 Big Ten) from bowl eligibility. The Huskers had missed the postseason just twice since 1968: in 2004 and in 2007, when Bill Callahan was coach. Callahan was fired after four seasons.
Riley’s fate appears sealed after three. He declined to address hot seat speculation after the game, and he won’t do it with his team, either, he said. The players can hear that everywhere else — but won’t from him. Riley said he’s talked a few times to his new boss, Athletic Director Bill Moos, and appreciated those chats.
“We’re just going to keep doing what we do and go forward,” Riley said. “That decision is going to be made by somebody other than me.”
After last weekend’s 54-21 loss to Minnesota — which itself lost 39-0 at Northwestern Saturday — the Huskers stood little reasonable chance of upsetting the No. 13 Nittany Lions (9-2, 6-2) on Senior Day, which likely doubled as the final home game for Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, a surefire first-round pick in the 2018 NFL draft and a Heisman Trophy candidate.
In front of an announced crowd of 106,722 — the actual attendance was thinned out by daylong showers — Barkley didn’t disappoint. His high-octane engine started in fifth gear and stayed there as he ran for 158 yards and amassed 224 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns. He played sparingly in the second half and did not return kickoffs, as he often does.
Barkley’s first carry — the game’s third play — was a wowzer, a 65-yard touchdown in which Nebraska’s beleaguered front seven was walled off and only safety Kieron Williams had a shot at tackling Barkley, perhaps the nation’s premier open-field runner. Williams whiffed and Barkley bolted up the sideline past cornerback Lamar Jackson, who couldn’t disengage from his blocker.
“He’s a great player,” Williams said. “That’s it.”
Diaco was asked what he saw on the play. He gave a long, dramatic pause.
“A good play,” Diaco said. “A good play on his part.”
Penn State led 7-0, but Nebraska used two Nittany Lions special teams gaffes to take a brief 10-7 lead in the first quarter. The Huskers recovered a muffed punt at the PSU 34 and turned it into a Drew Brown field goal. After NU’s defense forced a three-and-out, Penn State punter Blake Gillikin shanked a ball 18 yards to his own 36. Two Lee passes marched NU down to the Penn State 1, where Devine Ozigbo finished off the drive with a touchdown run.
But Nebraska’s defense was still the tackling-deficient, assignment-poor, lost-on-the-field bunch it was against Minnesota, so Penn State easily surged down the field on five straight touchdown drives of 66, 85, 67, 65 and 78 yards. Chunk plays abounded. A 30-yard Barkley run. A 43-yard pass from quarterback Trace McSorley to Juwan Johnson, featuring missed Husker shoulder tackles that resembled flying couches. A 22-yard pass to Saeed Blacknall on third-and-11. A 24-yard swing pass to Barkley. A 26-yard pass to Johnson, who split a loose zone defense between Mohamed Barry and Jackson. NU’s defense tossed in a couple of personal foul penalties for good measure.
“We’re not executing very well on defense right now,” Diaco said. “That’s obviously the understatement of the century.”
Said Jackson: “You’ve got to have some pride about this stuff. You can’t go out there and lay down for nobody. You’ve got to have some heart and make sure you do your thing, have a bigger picture in mind. But I just feel like we break under pressure or guys just flat-out can’t win an individual matchup.”
Penn State’s offense averaged 9 yards per play in the first half.
Nebraska’s offense averaged 2.8, posting five straight three-and-outs. Lee missed eight straight passes to end the half.
“We were having a tough time getting in rhythm,” Lee said. “And a lot of it was we were playing a good team. They were giving us a lot of different looks and pressure. They made it tough on us.”
In the second half, as Penn State’s public address operators played various rain-themed songs — Rihanna’s “Umbrella” and Toto’s “Africa” among them — Nebraska forced two punts and Lee led two third-quarter touchdown drives — respectively culminating in a 24-yard scoring run from Mikale Wilbon and a 22-yard scoring pass to De’Mornay Pierson-El — to cut Penn State’s lead to 42-24.
PSU answered with two scores, including a 17-yard pass to tight end Mike Gesicki from McSorley, who finished 24 of 36 for 325 yards and three touchdowns. Penn State led 56-24 with 10 minutes left in the game when Lee went on a late tear, leading touchdown drives of 75, 97 and 54 yards, the last of which came after the Huskers recovered an onside kick. Lee threw for 188 yards in the fourth quarter alone. Receivers Stanley Morgan (seven catches, 185 yards), JD Spielman (six catches, 96 yards) and Pierson-El (four catches, 54 yards) all had big days.
After missing the second half of the Minnesota game with an impact migraine, Lee passed concussion protocol in a week. Why, with NU facing long odds Saturday, did he want to play?
“Why not?” Lee said. “This is a dream come true to play here. Happy Valley, 100,000 fans. That would have hurt to miss this game. It really would have. So I knew that if I could go through the protocol and do everything I needed to do — if I felt good enough, which I did, I felt fine — I’d get cleared by the doctors.”
Riley said he appreciated the spirit of his players, even if those clumps of fans in red had mostly dispersed by game’s end. Riley said he continues to like his team, even if the results aren’t likable.
Though one Husker teared up after the game, most held their heads up and looked toward the season’s final game with Iowa. As Moos milled around among players and assistant coaches inside Beaver Stadium, Williams, a senior, said Nebraska would prepare hard for the Hawkeyes.
“We’re not going out there trying to lose,” Williams said. “We’re just fighting hard and coming up short. It’s not that we’re not trying. We’ve just got to figure it out. And in my last game as a Husker I want to be able to figure out how to beat Iowa.”
|Yards per carry||7.5||2.6|
Nebraska is 9-8 all-time against Penn State.
|Arkansas State||Sept. 2|
|Northern Illinois||Sept. 16|
|Ohio State||Oct. 14|
|Penn State||Nov. 18|
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