It was the Lions' third OT game of the year, and their first loss in such affairs. With one game left -- a toughie next week at Wisconsin -- they are 6-5. And they truly embody the old Bill Parcells-ism about a team being what its record says it is, for they have muddled along all year, taking one backward step for each one taken forward.
Since opening the season 2-0 they have alternated defeats and victories, at times able to overcome their deficiencies, at times unable to do so. Hence, 6-5.
On Saturday -- Senior Day -- the offense was just OK, either because of the frigid conditions or the speed of Nebraska's defense (or, likely, a little of both). The defense made three huge plays, two of which prevented Cornhusker touchdowns. But the special teams were brutal, with the final straw being a missed 37-yard field by Sam Ficken in overtime.
The Huskers (8-3) then ran three plays and lined up for a 37-yard field goal attempt. But wait, there was a flag. False start.
The frozen fans -- there were, shockingly, 98,517 of them -- could only hope larger forces were at work, as seemed to be the case when Michigan kicker Brendan Gibbons missed two potential game-winning field goals in PSU's four-overtime victory on Oct. 12 (not to mention when the Huskers' splendid running back, Ameer Abdullah, had an apparent 62-yard touchdown run wiped out by a personal foul with 8:18 left Saturday).
It was not to be this time, as Smith drilled the game-winner.
“We've had the football gods on our side a lot,” Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg said in an interview room as lifeless as the stadium had been. “Today it just didn't roll our way.”
Hackenberg threw two touchdown passes and ran for another, but went 16-for-33 for 217 yards (with five drops). His 46-yard scoring strike to tight end Jesse James 10 seconds into the fourth quarter -- a play on which James tight-roped down the left sideline, as he had on a 41-yard catch-and-carry in a season-ending victory over Wisconsin last November -- gave the Lions a 20-17 lead.
But PSU couldn't sustain anything on its next two possessions, and it was all the defense could do to keep Nebraska out of the end zone on its next-to-last thrust of regulation. Undeterred after Abdullah (25-147 rushing) saw his TD negated, the Huskers marched to the 1, only to be set back by a false start.
On third-and-goal from the 5, quarterback Ron Kellogg III was unable to find an open receiver and tried to run it in, only to be popped by linebackers Mike Hull and Brandon Bell at the 1. The force of the blow was such that the ball came free, but a Nebraskan fell on the fumble. Smith then kicked a 19-yard field goal to tie it with 4:29 left.
There was plenty of time for a rebuttal, but after two first downs -- one on Hackenberg's 20-yard pitch to the always-productive Allen Robinson (8-106 receiving) -- the drive petered out. So too did the Huskers' final march of regulation.
Then Ficken missed, and Smith did not.
Ficken also doinked an extra point off the right upright after Hackenberg's two-yard TD pass to Adam Breneman in the first quarter. And in the third quarter Nebraska's Kenny Bell returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown, the second time in as many weeks the Lions have allowed an opponent to take one the distance.
The Huskers also blocked a punt in the second quarter, after PSU's Alex Butterworth dropped a snap. That did not prove costly, as Lions safety Malcolm Willis would force Abdullah to fumble into the end zone, where Jesse Della Valle recovered for a touchback.
But the point, again, is that there were a lot of bullets to dodge. Picture Rambo-esque bandoliers. And the Lions could only duck so many times.
Coach Bill O'Brien, understandably grumpy afterward, said it was “a tough night” for his team, that the effort was there, that he didn't put his guys “in good enough position” to make plays in the two-minute offense. And, of course, he promised to take another good, hard look at the special teams.
“We will fix it,” he promised.
One other thing. “It's a team game,” he said. “We lost as a team today.”
The day started out with 16 seniors being honored. It was supposed to be 17, except backup wide receiver Alex Kenney is going to run track, then likely look to play his final football season elsewhere.
The Lions leaned heavily on tailback Zach Zwinak in the early going, as the starter the last four games at that position, Bill Belton, did not dress because of a shoulder injury and strep throat. Zwinak, who finished the day with a whopping 35 carries, gained 64 yards in the first quarter, en route to a 149-yard day -- his third straight week of 149 or more.
Six of Zwinak's attempts, and 27 of his yards, came on a 40-yard mini-march that was preceded by Della Valle's 25-yard punt return and ended with the Hackenberg-Breneman connection.
Ficken missed the point-after, his first such failure this year, and Kellogg came on for Nebraska's starting QB, Tommy Armstrong, who rolled an ankle. For his first trick Kellogg completed four straight passes while orchestrating a seven-play, 91-yard drive, the last a 27-yarder to Quincy Enunwa for the score.
It remained a 7-6 game until early in the third quarter, at which point PSU defensive end C.J. Olanyian strip-sacked Kellogg and recovered the ball himself at the Nebraska 8. Two plays later Hackenberg skirted right end for a seven-yard TD.
Kenny Bell answered with his coast-to-coast runback, and Smith added a 39-yard field goal late in the third quarter, giving Nebraska a 17-13 advantage. Kellogg, who went 20-for-34 for a season-high 191 yards, had two more completions in that drive, as well as a 12-yard scramble.
James' touchdown came moments later, but there were many more bullets to be dodged. More than could be avoided, where the Lions were concerned.
“It's a tough one to swallow,” middle linebacker Glenn Carson said. “It's been such an up-and-down season. It would have been really nice to get this one on Senior Day, but on the upside we've got one more game.”
Meaning it is time for more evasive maneuvers.
“We talk about resilience (with) this team all the time,” Carson said. “Our record after a loss, I would imagine it's pretty good.”
It is, in fact, 4-0. The problem is, their record after victories is 1-5. Again: One step forward, one step back.
Still, Carson said, “We just rebound fast. We don't stay down long. I'm sure that's what we're going to do next week.”