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Penn State Football: Nebraska Works Overtime to Beat Nittany Lions, 23-20

by on November 23, 2013 10:20 PM

Overtime. For Penn State, it was déjà vu all over again.

Four of Penn State’s last five Big Ten home games – one this past October, three November games, dating back to 2012 -- had been decided after regulation play.

Saturday in Beaver Stadium was no different. Check that: It was different.

Penn State lost. In overtime.

Before Saturday’s Senior Day game in Beaver Stadium (announced attendance: 98,517), Penn State had won its five previous overtime games – and its last three home conference games ending in overtime. There was last year’s Senior Day game in Beaver Stadium, when Penn State beat Wisconsin 24-21 in overtime. And the 43-40 four-overtime thriller over Michigan on Homecoming Day. And the 24-17 OT win against Illinois 28 days ago.

Finally, though, cold and snowy and windy and harsh reality hit Penn State. And hit hard. The Nittany Lions lost to the Cornhuskers, 23-20, on Saturday. In OT. And it did not feel OK.

The atmosphere in the locker room? “Well, not very good,” second-year Penn State head coach Bill O’Brien said. “Nebraska came out on top and we didn’t do a good enough job to win the game … No excuses, we did not do  good enough job offensively.”

For the Nittany Lions, who beat Purdue 45-21 last week, it was the fifth time in 2013 that they followed a victory with a defeat.

It was the second time in three seasons Penn State finished its home schedule with  a loss to Nebraska, as Penn State fell 21-17 to the Cornhuskers in November 2011. Since then, Penn State has been 6-2 at home under O’Brien in Beaver Stadium – a 35-23 loss to Ohio State in 2012 the only non-Nebraska defeat in that time.

On Saturday against Nebraska (8-3, 5-2 Big Ten), the Nittany Lions (6-5, 2-4) had their chances – especially in regulation. And while fighting off winds that blew up to 30 mph, they blew many of them.

Quarterback Christian Hackenberg threw one interception and the Lion receivers had a minimum of five drops. That includes one by reliable Allen Robinson on a crucial fourth quarter third down. Still, Hackenberg was 16 of 33 for 217 yards, with two touchdown passes and a TD run, and Robinson caught 8 passes for 196 yards. With Bill Belton sidelined with strep throat and a bum shoulder, Zach Zwinak ran 35 times for 149 yards (his third straight game of at least 149 yards). Yet he only carried twice for two yards in the second quarter, when the Lion offense sputtered and allowed Nebraska to stay in the game.

The Nittany Lion defense yielded just two TDs in regulation, only three successful third downs (out of 17 tries) and forced a pair of fumbles – one on the goal line by senior Malcom Willis, who had nine tackles in his 27th start and final one in Beaver Stadium. Linebacker Glenn Carson had 10 tackles for PSU in his team-high 35th start. Yet Nebraska scored enough to win.

Really, though, it was special teams play – and misplays -- that hurt the Nittany Lions.

They allowed a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Nebraska’s Kenny Bell, who put the ‘Huskers ahead 17-13 in the third quarter. It was the second kick return for a score against PSU in as many weeks. Punter Alex Butterworth dropped a snap, then had a punt blocked. Twice on kick returns, the Lion return men dropped the ball and then recovered their own fumbles. Sam Ficken also missed an extra point attempt when, after a poor snap and hold, he clanged the ball off of the right goal post in the south end zone.

How bad was it? Well, the Lions worked overtime to make sure their special teams were anything but special.

FICKEN: BEST OF TIMES, WORST OF TIMES

Penn State had the ball first in overtime, taking over at the 25-yard line. After two rushes for five yards by Zwinak, Hackenberg rolled left and on a difficult throw failed to connect with Robinson in the end zone.

That set up Penn State’s last offensive play of the game, its last offensive play at home in 2013 and the last offensive play for several seniors. Ficken lined up to attempt a 27-yard field goal in the south end zone that would’ve given Penn State a three-point lead before handing in the ball over to Nebraska’s offense.

Ficken had been in this situation in this stadium before in another overtime game.

It was the 2012 Senior Day game against Wisconsin, on an equally blustery dark evening in Beaver Stadium. That’s when he kicked a 37-yard field goal in overtime to give Penn State a 24-21 overtime win that sealed an 8-4 record and sent 31 Nittany Lion seniors out in style.

That was then. Saturday was now.

Ficken’s now before the OT field goal attempt: He had missed that PAT earlier against Nebraska and was kicking with an injured groin. He had made his past three field goals, but was just 4 of 8 before that, missing one in OT vs. Michigan.

Ficken’s now: He missed that 27-yard field goal attempt wide right in overtime, once again kicking into the Penn State students, who headed out into the cold and a Thanksgiving break with a few less blessings than they had hoped for.

Nebraska may have led 7-6 at halftime and scored on a 19-yard field goal by Smith to force the 20-20 overtime, but the Nittany Lions came from ahead to lose. Three times they scored to take the lead; they:

 -- Led first, 6-0, with 33 seconds left in the first quarter after a Freshman Phenom two-yard TD combo pass, from Hackenberg to Adam Breneman. It was set up by a 25-yard punt return by Jesse Della Valle that created a short 40-yard field for the Nittany Lion offense. That’s the PAT that Ficken missed.

-- Led 13-7 after Hackenberg executed a perfect bootleg fake and ran seven yards for a TD. A strip-and-fumble recovery of Nebraska quarterback Ron Kellegg by Penn State’s C.J. Olaniyan gave Penn State the ball at the 8 and two plays later Hack scored. Ficken made the extra point.

-- Led 20-17 early in the fourth quarter after Hackenberg threw a 46-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jesse James, who covered most the distance on the ground along the left sideline. Ficken made the extra point.

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Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979. He is a senior lecturer in Penn State's College of Communications and teaches a pair of classes in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism: “Sports Writing” and “Introduction to the Sports Industry.” He created and taught for several years the Center’s course on “Joe Paterno, Communications and The Media.” Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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