Lions, Huskers show they’re very far apart
UNIVERSITY PARK — In case you got a little confused Saturday by the red and white uniforms on Beaver Stadium’s visiting sideline, while Penn State was stunningly leading 42-10 late in the first half, rest assured those uniforms were being occupied by Nebraska and not Rutgers.
And that may not even be fair to the Scarlet Knights, who put up a game fight here a week ago and actually held the lead for 22 minutes before Penn State took stock of itself.
Seriously, how strange did it look for Nebraska, one of the nation’s proudest and most storied programs, to be thoroughly bludgeoned in the first half en route to a 56-44 loss that was way more lopsided than the final score indicated?
The Huskers gave up 609 yards overall — 32 first downs — and were outgained in the first half, 439-77.
This was Nebraska, mind you, not Rutgers.
Penn State’s domination was not necessarily because the Nittany Lions were on top of their game. Their special teams let them down early, or it may well have been worse.
James Franklin acknowledged after the game that the win came “against one of the most historic programs in college football,” and offered his praise for veteran coach Mike Riley.
And yet, without having to overcome anything close to the adversity Penn State faced when it went searching for Joe Paterno’s successor(s) — Franklin preceded by Bill O’Brien — Nebraska’s struggles under Riley underscore how a big-time school needs to get it right.
Riley had moderate success in two tours at Oregon State, sandwiched between a three-year stint as head coach of the San Diego Chargers. When Nebraska showed volatile Bo Pellini the door, it turned to Riley, and it’s not working out.
Saturday’s game reduced his record to 19-18 in three years and clinched a second non-bowl season.
The Huskers are now 12-14 in Big Ten play under Riley. This year, in addition to being down 42-10 to Penn State, they lost to Ohio State (56-14), Wisconsin (38-17) and Northern Illinois.
They beat Rutgers by 10, Arkansas State by a touchdown and Purdue by a point.
Nebraska doesn’t hire coaches to be embarrassed by heavyweights and struggle with lightweights.
The athletic director who hired Riley is Shawn Eichorst. He was dismissed earlier this season — in part because he hired Riley — and replaced by Bill Moos. Most Nebraskans think it’s a foregone conclusion that Riley, 64, will be out after Friday’s season finale with Iowa.
The Cornhuskers are in the Big Ten West so the Lions have only matched up with them three times in the last seven seasons.
Nebraska won all three — 17-14 three days after Paterno’s dismissal in 2011, 32-23 thanks to a controversial call in Lincoln that denied the Lions a key touchdown in 2012, and 23-20 in 2013.
Because we haven’t seen the Cornhuskers since, and because they still represent a big hurdle in PSU history (1980-82) as well as a burr on the Lions’ saddle for not getting to settle the score in 1994, Nebraska’s current slide was rather startling to witness in person.
On the other side of the field, in Franklin’s first matchup with the Huskers, Penn State showed how far apart these programs, once evenly-matched peers, now are.
Penn State got it right with O’Brien, a no-nonsense crisis manager and innovative offensive mind, and it was certainly got it right with Franklin, whose tenure has included consecutive seasons of unblemished work at Beaver Stadium, something that hasn’t happened in 31 years (1985-86).
Despite the close road losses to Ohio State and Michigan State, there is clearly a sense the Lions are trending upward.
“This program is on the up and up, and it’s going to continue to rise because of the younger guys who are going to come in and are the Penn State type of kid — blue collar who will mirror the type of players we had from the ’70s and ’80s and ’90s and the guys who have come before us,” senior offensive tackle Brendan Mahon, one of 23 seniors who played his final home game, said. “I think Penn State is going to keep it that way for a long time.”
Mahon thanked O’Brien and Franklin, and fellow senior Jason Cabinda called the team “fortunate to have had Coach Franklin for all four years.”
“Things are just going to keep on rolling,” Cabinda said. “Kind of how Penn State always has.”
And kind of how Nebraska once did.
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.