STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - After being one of the primarily scapegoats for Nebraska's struggles all season, special teams were the ultimate difference in the Huskers' 23-20 overtime win over Penn State on Saturday.
A blocked punt, a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and three field goals by kicker Pat Smith - including the game-winner in overtime - were three of the biggest plays of the game for NU, which improved to 8-3 on the season and 5-2 in Big Ten Conference play.
Senior quarterback Ron Kellogg replaced starter Tommy Armstrong in the first quarter and threw for 191 yards and a touchdown, while junior running back Ameer Abdullah ran for 148 yards on 25 carries for the Huskers. But it was the play in the game's third element that made the difference when all was said and done.
"I'm proud of our team," head coach Bo Pelini said. "These kids, once again, they showed a lot of heart. There was a lot of things that we had to overcome. Ourselves a couple times; we put the ball on the ground a couple times. Tommy Armstrong, obviously losing him early in the game to an ankle injury. A lot of guys being hurt. A lot of guys playing hurt. There's a lot of character in that locker room. It is a tight-knit group. They just kept fighting, and I congratulate them. I'm proud of them."
Defense and punts controlled the bulk of the opening quarter, as neither offense got much of anything going offensively until Penn State closed out the quarter with a bruising touchdown drive on the shoulders of running back Zach Zwinak. The 240-pound Zwinak carried the ball on six of PSU's eight plays on the drive for 27 yards, and true freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg capped it off with a two-yard touchdown pass to tight end Adam Breneman with just 33 seconds left in the quarter.
Nebraska opted to go with Kellogg on its next possession (its fourth of the game), and the senior immediately got the ball moving with a 14-yard pass to receiver Jordan Westerkamp, a 15-yard pass to tight end Jake Long, a 17-yard toss to Westerkamp and finally a 27-yard touchdown strike to wide out Quincy Enunwa with 13:14 left in the second quarter. Kellogg was a perfect 4-of-4 passing for 73 yards to lead NU 91 yards on the drive.
The Huskers appeared to get the first big break of the day a few minutes later when Penn State punter Alex Butterworth mishandled the snap and had his punt blocked by NU's Brandon Reilly. Andy Janovich picked the ball up and returned to the Penn State 48-yard line. The play marked Nebraska's first blocked punt since Idaho State last season.
It looked like the Huskers were going to make the most of the opportunity when they marched all the way down to the Penn State 3-yard line and faced a key third-and-goal play. Abdullah took the snap out of the Wildcat formation, but just before he got to the goal line the ball was knocked loose, and the Nittany Lions recovered in the end zone. It was Abdullah's fourth fumble on the year, and all four have been lost.
"I put the team in a bad situation early," Abdullah said. "We should have been up more than what we were if I don't fumble at the goal line. I'll admit, I was out of sync all day, but my teammates did a great job picking me up."
The good news for NU was that Penn State was unable to do anything with its first big break either, and both offenses stalled out for the remainder of the quarter to send the Huskers into halftime with a 7-6 lead. Kellogg ended the half 11-of-13 passing for 113 yards and a touchdown, while on the other side, Penn State struggled to do much of anything outside of its one touchdown drive, gaining just 159 yards of total offense after picking up 71 rushing yards on its first 13 carries.
After an impressive showing in the first half, Kellogg made his first major mistake on Nebraska's opening drive of the third quarter. Penn State's defense got heavy pressure on a third-and-short pass, and Kellogg was stripped of the football deep in NU territory. The Nittany Lions recovered at the Husker 8-yard line, and two plays later Hackenberg strolled into the end zone untouched on a pretty play-action bootleg around the right end to make it 13-7 with 10:37 to go in the third.
As quickly as PSU reclaimed the momentum, though, Nebraska took it right back in one play. Junior Kenny Bell fielded the ensuing kickoff at the 1, ran it all the way across the field and took it to the house for a 99-yard touchdown return. The runback was the Huskers' first scoring return since Abdullah ran one 100 yards against Fresno State back in 2011.
"It was big, especially after we turned the football over a couple times and kind of gave them a short field," Pelini said. "Obviously Kenny's (play), that helps you dig out of a hole. He stepped up and made a play. Kenny played a good football game, but that was a big play. That was pretty sweet when he got over the kicker."
The Huskers got on the board again after another momentum-changing play later in the quarter. After escaping the shadow of their own goal post with a 43-yard pass to Allen Robinson that get the ball near midfield, Nebraska defensive back Ciante Evans tipped a Hackenberg pass in the air with one hand and hauled in the deflection along the sideline at the NU 48 for the interception. Smith drilled a 39-yard field goal to increase the lead to 17-13 with 1:16 left in the third.
"I'd been trying to bait (Hackenberg) the whole game," Evans said. "The first time he didn't want to throw it a me, but the second time I knew he was coming back to the comeback because he threw it the first time, so I acted like I was going in and I went back to the comeback and he threw it right to me."
Having given Nebraska plenty of breaks through the first three quarters, Penn State finally came up with another big play in the first minute of the fourth. Hackenberg found a wide-open tight end Jesse James out in the left flat, and James turned it up the sideline and managed to stay inbounds despite getting bumped by safety Corey Cooper. The play resulted in a 43-yard touchdown pass, and just like that the Nittany Lions were back on top 20-17.
With roughly eight minutes remaining in the game, it looked as if the Huskers had come up with another game-changing play when Abdullah broke a run 62 yards for what appeared to be the go-ahead touchdown. However, a very questionable personal foul call on receiver Sam Burtch just before Abdullah crossed the goal line negated the score and brought it back out to the PSU 27.
"They said it was unnecessary," Pelini said of the referees' explanation of the call. "You saw my reaction."
Nebraska was able to move it inside the 10, but a Kellogg run on third down was stopped at the 1, and NU had to settle for a 19-yard field goal by Smith to tie it at 20-20 with 4:29 to play.
Kellogg was shaken up on the play and remained on the turf for a couple minutes before finally making his way to the sideline, but he would return to play the rest of the game.
Penn State was able to move the ball inside Nebraska's 40 on its following drive, but opted to punt rather than go for a risky fourth-down conversion and pinned the Huskers at their own 5 with 1:30 left in the game. Nebraska avoided total disaster after Kellogg fumbled a shotgun snap near the goal line, but he was able to recover at the NU 1. On a 3rd and 14 with 1:20 left, Kellogg heaved a deep pass to Enunwa down the left sideline, and Penn State cornerback Jordan Lucas was called for pass interference, giving the Huskers a first down.
"It was huge," Pelini said. "It was big, because they would've had a really, really short field with a couple timeouts left. That was a big play. It was about time we got a call."
False start and holding penalties on tackle Zach Sterup helped put Nebraska in a third-and-20 situation, and Kellogg's pass to Enunwa along the right sideline fell incomplete with 21 seconds remaining, forcing a punt. The Nittany Lions decided to go for the block and didn't put a returner down field, and Sam Foltz boomed it to the PSU 15 with just 10 seconds to go. Hackenberg kneeled it down to run out the rest of the clock, and the game went to Nebraska's first overtime since beating Iowa State in OT in 2010.
Penn State's offense went first to start overtime, and after a Hackenberg pass fell incomplete, kicker Sam Ficken's field goal attempt from 37 yards out sailed wide right. Nebraska took over for its offensive possession and set up a 37-yard attempt by Smith, but a false start before the kick - which was good - made it a 42-yard try. That hardly bothered Smith, though, as he calmly split the uprights to seal the victory, 23-20.
Though they're out of conference title contention, the Huskers will be playing for bowl position when they wrap up the 2013 regular season next Friday when Iowa comes to town for the annual post-Thanksgiving matchup. Kickoff for next week's game is set for 11 a.m. CT and will be nationally televised on ABC.
"I told them last night and I told them today, it's an honor to a part of this group of guys," Pelini said. "It's a special group of kids. It is. There's something special going on here with these kids.