Special teams doom PSU in home finale
STATE COLLEGE – For as much as Bill O’Brien talks about complementary football, Penn State has had a very tough time playing it this season.
Saturday had to be especially frustrating to watch for the coach, along with everyone else who follows the Nittany Lions.
The defense played well enough to beat Nebraska.
The offense played well enough to beat Nebraska.
That’s complementary football.
But there are three aspects of the game, and the Lions were an absolute disaster in one of them.
Penn State’s special teams gave up a kickoff return for a touchdown. And missed an extra point. And missed a field goal in overtime. And had a punt blocked. And fumbled, but recovered, a punt and a kickoff.
In many ways it’s remarkable that the Lions not only were in the game late against a quality team, but had a chance to win despite all the mistakes. The special teams issues ultimately did them in, though, as Nebraska spoiled senior day with a 23-20 win in overtime before 98,517 fans at Beaver Stadium.
“Not real good,” O’Brien said when asked about the mood in the locker room after the game.
The Cornhuskers tied things at 20 on a 19-yard field goal by Pat Smith with 4:30 left to play, then won when Smith drilled a 42-yarder in overtime. Sam Ficken had missed from 37 yards on Penn State’s overtime possession.
“There wasn’t a lot of talking in the locker room afterwards, but a lot of hugs and a lot of pats on the backs,” PSU senior linebacker Glenn Carson said after Saturday’s bitter defeat on a bitterly cold, windy day. “I think that a lot of people played their hearts out today.”
O’Brien, who badly wanted his seniors to enjoy the reward of a victory in their final home game, has always avoided being overly critical of his players and followed suit Saturday.
“[We] gave up a kickoff return for a touchdown, which is not good,” he said. “Kids were trying hard, though. Good kids, trying hard. You just got to continue to work on it and fix it.”
The reality for Penn State is that a lot of backups and walk-ons have to play on special teams because the program doesn’t have much depth. That explains some of the reasons for why Nebraska had a 99-yard kickoff return for a TD one week after Purdue returned one 100 yards.
The Lions had taken a 13-7 lead early in the third quarter when Kenny Bell burned them for the 99-yard score on the ensuing kickoff.
“Kenny stepped up and made a play,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. “Kenny played really well today, and that was a big play. That was pretty sweet when he got over the kicker [Ficken, who missed a diving tackle trying to save a touchdown].”
The Lions have some understandable holes on the return teams, but they do have an experienced place-kicker in Ficken. Unfortunately for them, he had a bad day.
Ficken missed a PAT in the first quarter when his kick hit the right upright. That point haunted the Lions the rest of the day because, with it, they would have been at 21 instead of 20 and Nebraska would have been forced to try for a touchdown instead of a tying field goal in the closing minutes.
Penn State (6-5, 3-4) got the ball first in overtime but managed only 5 yards on three plays. On third-and-5 from the 20, quarterback Christian Hackenberg rolled to his left and might have had enough room to run for the first down, but instead he threw a pass to Allen Robinson along the sideline that fell short.
“I saw Allen sort of give [the defender] a shake, I thought he could get out of it,” Hackenberg said. “I just didn’t get my hips around. It was tough. Looking back at it, I’m pretty sure going back watching it on film I’m going to think I could have done some other things.”
He then was asked specifically if he should have run for it.
Hindisght’s 20-20, so looking back at it, maybe, maybe not,” the freshman said. “Just another experience under my belt.”
Ficken came in on fourth down for a 37-yard attempt, but his kick stayed right and barely missed by a few feet.
Ficken had a brutal day kicking at Virginia last season in a one-point loss, but he rebounded and earlier this season set a school record with 15 consecutive made field goals.
Tight end Jesse James, who caught a 46-yard TD pass to give PSU a 20-17 lead with 14:50 to go, said Ficken will “keep his head up.”
“He already knows how it works,” James said. “He’s had tough games before, and he’s had great games. He knows he has to stay level-headed throughout everything. He’s a real level-headed kid, and he’ll come back next week ready to go.”
Nebraska (8-3, 5-2) needed only a field goal on its overtime possession to win, and Smith made a 37-yarder that was negated because of a false start penalty. He kicked again from 42 yards and nailed it, making him 10-of-11 on the season.
Smith said afterward about Ficken, “My heart goes out to that guy. He’s a good kicker.”
Penn State had a chance to clinch a winning season with a victory, as well as give the seniors the victory that O’Brien and everyone on the team wanted to achieve.
“Everybody wanted to get this win, especially for the senior class,” Carson said. “We’re truly a family. We all play for each other, we all have each other’s backs, and that’s just the characteristics of Penn State football and the kind of guys that we have here.”
Penn State played with only 50 players who were recruited to be on scholarship, yet it still played toe to toe in an evenly matched game against one of the nation’s most storied programs.
Many of the final statistics showed just how even the teams are:
Both offenses ran 77 plays.
Nebraska had 19 first downs, PSU 18.
The time of possession was 30:44 for the Lions and 29:16 for the Cornhuskers.
Penn State rushed for 170 yards, Nebraska 168.
Zach Zwinak had 149 yards rushing for the Lions, while Nebraska standout Ameer Abdullah had 147.
Hackenberg threw for 217 yards, while Ron Kellogg III had 191 after starter Tommy Armstrong Jr. had 1 yard and was removed because of an ankle injury.
The game essentially came down to special teams, and that’s why Nebraska won.
Now, if the Lions want to finish with a winning record, they will have to pull off an upset in next week’s season finale at No. 16 Wisconsin, which is 9-2 and riding a six-game winning streak after Saturday’s 20-7 win at Minnesota.
“It’s been a roller coaster this year, and we’ve just fought through it,” Carson said. “We’ve taken our hits and we’ve always come back from it. I don’t expect anything else this upcoming week.”