STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - Nebraska had no idea what to expect from a Penn State team that had been through an emotional meat grinder all week long, and it ended up getting all it could handle from the Nittany Lions.
In one of the most emotional games of the season in all of college football, the Huskers edged out a gritty late rally by Penn State to hold on for a 17-14 win on Saturday.
After jumping out to a 17-point lead midway through the third quarter, Nebraska watched the Nittany Lions claw their way back and cut the lead to three on a pair of rushing downs by backup running back Stephfon Green.
It took a fourth down stop by the Blackshirts with under two minutes left to play and then another last-second stand to close out the game before the Huskers could finally breathe a sigh of relief with the victory.
With all the stressful circumstances that surrounded the game, NU head coach Bo Pelini said he couldn't be happier with the way his team stayed focused throughout the week and came in ready to play.
"I'm real proud of our team," Pelini said. "They came out here and I thought they were real focused. They did a lot of good things out there, and a good team wins against good football team. I give our team a lot of credit, and Penn State's football team a lot of credit. It was obviously a crazy atmosphere all week. For going into a game like that, I think it shows the character of both football teams and all the young men who played in the game. It was a good football game."
After a scoreless first quarter that saw a combined 138 total yards of offense, including just 29 yards by Nebraska, the Huskers finally got going to start the second quarter.
Behind the running of sophomore quarterback Taylor Martinez, Nebraska picked up four first downs on its first five plays of the quarter and marched into Penn State territory. While the drive eventually stalled, the Huskers were able to get on the board first with a 41-yard field goal by junior Brett Maher with 10:55 left in the first half.
That would end up being the only scoring until the final minute of the half, as Nebraska closed out the second quarter with an impressive 12-play, 80-yard march down the field to score the game's first touchdown.
Facing a third-and-long inside the PSU 20, the Huskers got a bit of a break when the Nittany Lions were flagged for a defensive pass interference on a throw to Tim Marlowe. The penalty gave NU a first down at the 2, and freshman Ameer Abdullah punched in his first career rushing touchdown from there to make it 10-0 with just 44 seconds left in the half.
"I thought that was a huge drive for us," Pelini said. "To get up in essence two scores before going into the half gave us a lot of momentum, especially knowing we got the ball when we came back."
Martinez was 3-of-4 passing for 49 yards on the drive, and he finished the game 13-of-26 for 143 yards. As a team, Nebraska dominated the second quarter on both sides of the football, racking up 138 yards and a touchdown on 22 plays while holding the ball for 9:20. Penn State ran just nine plays for 69 yards in the quarter.
The Huskers also picked up 12 first downs and did not commit a single penalty or turnover in the first half.
Holding a 10-point lead, Nebraska got the first big turnover break of the second half when Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin was sacked by defensive end Cameron Meredith at midfield and fumbled the football. Husker defensive end Eric Martin jumped on the ball at the PSU 48, giving NU its best starting field position of the day.
Junior running back Rex Burkhead took over from there, carrying it five times for 33 yards on the ensuing drive, including a 14-yard touchdown off a clutch pitch by Martinez on an option. The score made it 17-0 with less than nine minutes remaining in the third quarter.
Burkhead ended the day with 121 yards on 25 carries, marking his sixth 100-yard rushing day of the season and giving over 1,000 yards on the year. He became the 31st Husker to break the 1,000-yard rushing mark in a season.
"He comes to play every week," Pelini said. "We gave the players some rest this week, and it was actually hard to get Rex off the field because he is going to fight you to the tooth and nail when you try to replace him. But he mixed it up well, and I thought it was a real team effort on the offensive side of the ball. I thought we had a couple missed opportunities, but that's a good defense we played over there."
Just when it seemed that the life had been sucked completely out of Beaver Stadium, though, the Nittany Lions finally discovered their offense on their next drive. With the help of a 40-yard pass from McGloin to receiver Derek Moye that went down to the NU 5, Penn State punched it into the end zone on a five-yard run by Green.
Things wouldn't pick up again until on into the fourth quarter, when it was Penn State's turn to catch a big break with a turnover. With Nebraska looking to burn down some clock inside of 10 minutes left in the game, the Huskers moved Burkhead under center and Martinez into the backfield - something they did a few times in the game.
The gadget play didn't work out as planned, however, as Burkhead fumbled the handoff to fullback Tyler Legate because of a great push up front by Penn State's defensive line, and the Nittany Lions recovered at their own 49.
A 16-yard pass to Justin Brown and then a reverse pass by receiver Curtis Drake to McGloin for another 16 yards gave the Nittany Lions a first-and-goal at the Nebraska 6-yard line. Green took it in for his second touchdown run of the day on the very next play to make it 17-14 with 5:42 to play.
Penn State had to convert a fourth down and then a third down to keep the drive alive, as the Huskers couldn't slam the door shut when they had the chance.
Nebraska then did exactly what it didn't need to do on its following possession, quickly going three-and-out to give Penn State the ball back. Luckily Maher delivered one of his many great punts on the day to pin PSU back at its own 11 to start the drive with just under four minutes remaining.
Maher averaged 45.0 yards on eight punts in the game, including putting five inside the 20 with a long of 61 yards.
Offensive coordinator Tim Beck blamed himself for getting a bit too conservative late in the game instead of continuing to attack Penn State's defense.
"I think some games I get conservative," Beck said. "I play not to win. I play not to lose instead of playing to win. I think it was evident in some of the games. You get too conservative, you're play-calling gets that way. As I looked back and really thought about it, we've got to be who were are, and that's an attacking offense. Sometimes I don't do that. For whatever reason I don't."
Needing to come up with a play to save the season, the Blackshirts did exactly that on another fourth down conversion attempt by the Nittany Lions on their final drive of the game. On fourth-and-inches, senior linebacker Lavonte David came up huge once again and stuffed PSU running back Silas Redd short of the first down line, giving the Huskers the ball back with less than two minutes in the game.
Penn State burned its final two timeouts to set up a third down for Nebraska, and Burkhead was stopped a yard short to bring up a key fourth down. The Huskers opted to go for it rather than kick the field goal, and Burkhead was tackled just inches short to give PSU the ball back with 49 seconds remaining.
With no timeouts, the Nittany Lions only got as far as their own 46-yard line before time expired to end the comeback.
"The momentum was changing toward the end for Penn State, and it was huge to get a stop like at the end of the game," Meredith said. "I thought we came out there with some intensity and we just knew what we had to do."
With the win, Nebraska improved 8-2 on the season and 4-2 in Big Ten Conference play. The Huskers will look to continue their winning ways on the road again next week, as they travel to take on Michigan for an 11 a.m. kickoff.
Pelini emotional, candid about Penn State situation
It's little surprise that one of the most difficult week's ever for a college football program brought out some of the most genuine emotions from the generally guarded Pelini in his post-game interview.
After dismissing the Penn State situation's effect on Nebraska all week long and saying it would have no impact on his team, Pelini admitted Saturday that he was deeply bothered by the circumstances surrounding the game.
In fact, there was one point during the week where he even questioned whether the Huskers should even play the game at all.
"I'll be honest with you, going into the football game I didn't think the game should have been played for a lot of different reasons," Pelini said. "In the end, I look at my job as a football coach is to educate, and to prepare the kids in the program for the rest of their life. That's what we are. We're in a university system, and the situation going on is bigger than football, it's bigger than that game that was just played, it's bigger than the young game involved that would have missed it had they called it off. It's about education and people putting in perspective what the situation was all about. Hopefully at least the fact that both teams sat down and prayed together, maybe that put that in perspective a little bit. It's about doing what's right. It's about society. It's about right and wrong.
"Trust me when I tell you, I don't know the specifics of the situation and I'm not judging anybody, but the fact is young kids were hurt. And that's a crime in itself and it's a lot bigger than football. It's a lot bigger than the NCAA, the Big Ten or anything else. I think that's why in the end, going in I didn't think the game should be played. But with it being played, I think both teams coming together was the right thing to do and hopefully that in itself made a statement."
Pelini said being a father of young children of his own made hearing of the child sex abuse scandal with former PSU defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky that much more difficult to stand.
In the end, though, he felt that playing the game would help drawn more attention to the issue of child abuse. The more informed people become of the problem, he said, the better chance of preventing more children from becoming victims of abuse in the future.
"I always think it's about the youth, the young kids," Pelini said. "I have a 12-year-old boy.... I think there are a lot of young kids that all week with all the things that were going on on ESPN that were really confused for a lot of different reasons because there's a lot out there that people don't know.
"There's a lot of speculation. There's a lot of things going on. And I think it's not about the adults, it's not about the football. It's about education and it's about the youth. And I think that gets lost in the whole situation. ... Whatever comes out of it, hopefully a lot of people learned from it and nothing like that ever happens again."
Blackshirts use boxing match as motivation
After last week's rough defensive outing in the loss to Northwestern, defensive coordinator Carl Pelini decided the Blackshirts needed a bit of old fashioned Youngstown, Ohio, motivation.
Prior to the defensive team meeting Friday night, Pelini showed the unit the tape of Youngstown native Kelly Pavlik's 2007 Middleweight title fight against Jermain Taylor.
The fight started off terribly for Pavlik, as Taylor roughed him up for the majority of the first five rounds, even knocking him to the canvas in the second. By the seventh round, though, Pavlik battled back enough to work Taylor into a corner and knock him out cold for the win.
The theme Pelini wanted his defense to take away from that fight was to keep "locked knees" at all times, even when things are at their worst. The phrase stems from when a fighter is losing, many times his knees begin to feel wobbly. Pelini's point was a fighter with locked knees won't go down nearly as easily.
"(Pavlik) took some of the hardest hits I've ever seen, and when he took those shots he said 'I locked my knees, because if I'd have bent my knees I would've gone down,'" Pelini said. "He didn't go down, and he ended up knocking the other guy out. So I showed them that video the other night and talked about how in sports you're going to get punched sometimes.
"We got punched last week. Sometimes in the course of game you're going to get punched like we did today, but you've got to counterpunch. You can't go down. You just keep fighting and good things will happen. I think our guys bought into that last night and played like that today."
Martin said the defense completely embraced the idea during Saturday's win, saying that after every defensive series the unit told each other to keep their knees locked.
"When you're getting hit, it makes your knees buckle," Martin said. "You've got to lock them. You got to keep them straight. It's one of those deals where you've got to keep your knees straight, because we got hit in the mouth twice, and it's all about how you recover from it. You get hit in the mouth, you've got to stand up. You can't fall. You've got to stay up and fight back."
Pelini said the way the Blackshirts fought back from last week's loss and through some tough moments on Saturday was a sign of growth. Just like Pavlik, he said the defense showed it could overcome even the most frustrating situations.
"That' s the attitude our players had," Pelini said. "We took a punch and came back and counter punched and had a couple big stops there at the end. That's the maturation of a group of young men, and I'm proud of the way they responded."
Choi, Long go the distance
One of the biggest red flags that jumped out for Nebraska before the game even began was the fact that it only had two healthy offensive guards on its entire 70-man travel roster.
With injuries at the position throughout the year and sophomore Andrew Rodriguez being a late scratch because he was forced to stay home due to an illness, the Huskers were left with walk-ons Spencer Long and Seung Hoon Choi as the only true guards for the game.
Beck said the team had a few backup plans in case one of the two were to have to leave the game at any point, but it ended up those plans never needed to come up.
Nebraska ran 75 plays on Saturday, and Choi and Long were on the field for each and every one of them.
"We're going to play who can play," Beck said. "I've got as much faith in them as I do anybody. I'm proud of them. Those guys played hard, they battled through injuries. We've had a tough stretch, all of our kids really, and they showed a lot of character and a lot of spirit today."
Along with being counted on to help man the interior offensive line the entire game, Choi and Long also had to go up against two of the better defensive tackles in the Big Ten in Jordan Hill and Devon Still, who was named a midseason All-American.
Choi said that while he was obviously exhausted by the end of the game, the drive to step up and come through for his team was all the motivation was he needed to push through for four quarters.
"As the game went on I got tired, but we knew we were going to keep running at them," Choi said. "It was good. Physically maybe we were a little bit tired, but mentally we were ready to go. I think we finished our jobs… I knew it was going to be a challenge, so we had to compete."