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November 23, 2013

Game rewind: Huskers find a way once again

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - The Huskers spent the last week hearing about how, with a Big Ten title out of the picture, they had nothing left to play for. They certainly didn't perform like they bought all that talk Saturday.

On a tundra of a field at Beaver Stadium, with offensive linemen dropping like flies (defensive linemen Vincent Valentine and Brandon Chapek were called into duty to block for the final field goal), a pair of turnovers that caused a 14-point swing (we'll get to those) and rumors swirling about the status of the coach, Nebraska stood tall.

The starting quarterback was replaced because of injury and ineffectiveness, but a former walk-on kept Nebraska in the game. The much-maligned special teams contributed a kickoff return for a touchdown and blocked a punt. The Huskers were outgained and fumbled four times, but found a way to overcome the miscues.

It's not the type of victory that's going to win any beauty pageants, but it didn't have to. The Huskers fought, persevered and survived. And at least for one more Saturday, that was enough.

On with the rewind…

Five defining moments

Penn State fails on third down in overtime: Cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste, who lined up against All-American candidate Allen Robinson on Penn State's final offensive play, said Nebraska was expecting PSU to run play-action, and that's exactly what it did. Hackenberg threw left to Robinson, who was running a comeback route, but Jean-Baptiste dove in front to bat the ball away. Sam Ficken missed the ensuing kick, setting up Pat Smith's heroics moments later.

Kenny Bell's kickoff return: One play after the Nittany Lions had stolen both the momentum and the lead back with a second-quarter touchdown, Bell swung the balance once again. The junior caught the ball at the one-yard line and sprinted up the middle before cutting to the right sideline. With only the kicker in his way, Bell baited him before making a great move that sprung him to daylight. It was the first touchdown on a kickoff return for Nebraska since the second game of the 2011 season.

Critical fumbles: It's hard to say which miscue had the greater impact - Ameer Abdullah lost the ball at the one-yard line when Nebraska was about to score to take a 14-6 lead in the second quarter. A period later, Ron Kellogg was stripped of the ball on NU's eight-yard line. The Nittany Lions scored two plays later to take a 14-13 lead. Turnovers weren't as costly or prevalent as they were a week ago against Michigan State, but they continue to be a major issue that Nebraska just can't seem to solve."

The phantom penalty on Sam Burtch: Abdullah appeared to give Nebraska the lead midway through the fourth quarter when he found the end zone from 50 yards out. But the officials ruled that Burtch, who had blocked a Penn State defender trailing the play as Abdullah was about to score, hit him unnecessarily and assessed a 15-yard personal foul penalty. The flag wiped out the touchdown and NU was forced to settle for a field goal on the drive.

Pass interference on NU's final drive: Facing third and 14 from their own one-yard line with 1:22 left, it seemed the Huskers would just run the ball, punt and try to force overtime. But offensive coordinator Tim Beck figured that a long pass made the most sense - even if it was intercepted, it would have the same effect as a punt. Kellogg uncorked a throw to Quincy Enunwa, who was interfered with. Nebraska wasn't able to score on the drive, but it did bleed nearly the rest of the clock to get to overtime. The conversion also keep the Huskers from punting from their own end zone, a very dangerous proposition.

Game balls

Ameer Abdullah: It's tough to find many players around the conference, or even the country, that mean more to their team. With the passing game in flux and switching quarterbacks, Abdullah bullied his way for 147 rushing yards, his 10th game with more than 100 this year. His fumble hurt badly, but if it weren't for Abdullah's consistent production, the NU offense would be beyond stagnant.

Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans: The duo didn't exactly shut Robinson down, as he still finished with eight grabs and 106 yards. But other than a 43-yard catch, the duo kept Robinson in check for the most part. After watching the wideout torch defenses over the course of the season (he entered the game with 81 catches and 1,204 yards), Evans and Jean-Baptiste kept Robinson from making the impact plays that he typically victimizes defenses with. And Evans' spectacular third-quarter interception led to a field goal.

Brandon Reilly: The walk-on wide receiver is starting to make a name for himself. He had two catches for 19 yards, but his greatest contribution came on special teams. On a second-quarter punt, Reilly saw PSU punter Alex Butterworth drop the ball, and his goal was to just push the shield blockers back. The punt ended up hitting one of those blockers in the back, and Andy Janovich recovered the ball to give Nebraska great field position.

By the numbers

2: Third-down conversions by Penn State in 14 tries. The Huskers weren't much better (three for 17), but the NU defense stepped up and not only forced Penn State into some tough third-down situations, but it made the stops necessary. The Nittany Lions didn't have a single third-down conversion in the first half.

10: Straight games with at least one tackle for loss by Randy Gregory, who increased his Big Ten-leading total to 16. Gregory has a fairly quiet day and was held without a sack, but he still managed eight tackles and did well contributing in the running game.

9: Offensive linemen who saw playing time offensively. Jeremiah Sirles, Cole Pensick and Jake Cotton were all in and out of the lineup with preexisting injuries, and Brent Qvale had to be removed for portions of the game after he went down in the first half. That left snaps for Ryne Reeves, Zach Sterup and Givens Price, and despite all the movement on the line, NU gave up just two sacks.

16: Career games of 100 or more yards rushing for Abdullah, who tied Calvin Jones for fourth in the category in school history with his performance Saturday.

They said it

"It was hard today. It was hard to enjoy today, just trying to find points and move the ball and find ways to not give up sacks and fumbles. As a coach, you feel like a failure when that stuff is happening. I don't know how to fix it."

- Beck when asked whether he enjoyed this game

"Every time we go out there and put that 'N' on and Coach Bo is under that headset, we're playing for him. There is no special or added pressure with the things going on outside of what we can control. Coach Bo always talks about focusing on the things we can control, and we focused on our effort, playing together and continuing to fight."

- Linebacker Michael Rose on how the players are approaching all the speculation surrounding Bo Pelini

"You're never going to hear Bo use injury or youth as an excuse. Every time you turn on ESPN, every other team is talking about their injuries and their youth. You just have to go play. We tell our guys in our practice and how we approach, you're one play away. Next man in."

- Defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski on NU's success despite a rash of injuries at key positions

Biggest question/concern: Where do the Huskers go at quarterback?

This is the exact same question I had in this space last week, and it remains because the answer might have only become more murky Saturday. Tommy Armstrong has started every game in which Taylor Martinez hasn't been available, but he left after three series because he was dinged up, according to Beck, and outplayed by backup Kellogg. Kellogg's numbers were solid (20-34 passing, 191 yards and touchdown), but he fell off after a hot start and fumbled three times. When asked about the situation going forward, Beck would only say, "We'll see."

Beck went on to say that, if necessary, Ryker Fyfe would be the team's No. 3 quarterback because Martinez is "probably not ready to play." And although Johnny Stanton traveled for the first time, the Huskers did that simply to give him a road experience and have no thoughts of pulling his redshirt. Nebraska is going to have to rely on some combination of Armstrong and Kellogg for these past two games, but the last several weeks have made that a very difficult decision for Pelini and Beck.





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