There is only one play from last week’s Penn State-Nebraska game that will continue to be talked about through the years, but there were others that mattered. Here are five that best told the complete story of the Huskers 32-23 win.
We’ve got the official highlights from Huskers.com this week and it’s a pretty fantastic package. As usual, time stamps for the video are included in parentheses below.
1) 1st Quarter, 13:24 (0:31), Zwinak 50-yard touchdown run: After a coverage bust gave the Nittany Lions a first down on third-and-11, the Huskers have a second straight miss on Zwinak’s touchdown run. Penn State has both tight ends split out wide, with a slot receiver on each side as well. Nebraska answers with its base 4-3 set.
There’s nothing fancy here, just a straight dive with Zwiank as the single back. The two slot receivers run bubble screen routes, but this play is baffling in its effectiveness. The center gets on Will Compton, which is really where this play is made, and Penn State’s guard is able to shepherd Baker Steinkuhler into the middle, giving Zwinak a crease. From there, he outruns both Nebraska’s converging outside linebackers and safeties. This wasn’t a communication breakdown – thought that was coming.
2) 1st Quarter, 8:18 (0:40), Martinez 30-yard completion to Turner: Taylor Martinez is playing some really good football right now. If you want the Cliff’s Notes version of why Nebraska won on Saturday here it is: Taylor Martinez. Penn State simply didn’t have an answer for his ability to keep plays alive and convert third downs.
His best play of the day came early. Facing third-and-18 after a personal foul penalty wiped out the best screen pass Nebraska’s run this year, Martinez takes the shotgun snap at the 41-yard line. It’s a pure passing down and Penn State’s showing, and bringing, a five-man blitz. The pocket collapses quickly, and the coverage is good early, but Martinez escapes to the right. There’s a window between the Lions’ safeties and the cornerback covering Jamal Turner. It’s small but Martinez finds it with perhaps the most impressive throw of his career. Seriously. This is gunslinger stuff. On the run, Martinez releases it about four yards outside the right hash at the 40-yard line and, throwing across his body, delivers a strike to Turner at the left hash on the 7-yard line.
I won’t call it his best throw because we’ve seen this sort of decision burn Nebraska numerous times before. But physically it’s impressive and it’s ultimately set up by Martinez’s mobility. He made that sort of play all game long.
3) 2nd Quarter, 2:49 (2:02), McGloin 10-yard touchdown pass to James: The play that made Daimion Stafford a YouTube sensation this week (for the wrong reasons). Bo Pelini took the blame for not getting the call in soon enough and it’s easy to see why from the reverse angle. This is a staple play of Penn State’s playbook, something you can assume the Huskers saw plenty of during the week but nobody knows where they need to be.
Tight end Jesse James is lined up as a fullback here, with two other tight ends in the formation. The ball is actually snapped and Ciante Evans, playing corner, still has his arms up in the air asking for the call. This is a simple play action flat play with the wideout on the right side running a slant to create interference. Andrew Green, the corner on that side is clearly playing straight-up man. Compton is not, which leaves James all alone on the flat. It’s almost impossible to get someone this wide open inside the 10-yard line without some sort of major bust occurring which may have been what Stafford was saying when he got back to the sideline, albeit in fewer words.
4) 3rd Quarter, (3:08), Stafford interception: If there was any ill-will following Pelini and Stafford’s first half exchange – both parties said there wasn’t – it was definitely gone after this play. After playing marvelously in the first half, McGloin made a mistake here.
Facing third-and-15, Nebraska rushes only four and is showing cover 2, man-under but it’s actually a pure match-up zone for the safeties. Stafford isn’t playing halves with Smith, he’s offering help on the slot and McGloin never really looks at anyone else. That’s strange given that Evans, Nebraska’s best cover man was on him from the start, and in a good spot to make play on his own. Doubly strange when Stafford has little else to do but sit back there and wait for McGloin to throw it.
After the game, Evans joked that he told Stafford that route was coming. On Monday, Stafford said he knew it was coming anyway. The tape shows that he did, as Stafford pounces on this thing from the moment it’s released.
5) 4th Quarter, (4:14), Martinez 5-yard touchdown pass to Turner: On third-and-goal from the 5-yard line, Nebraska toys a little bit with expectations. All season long, the Huskers have thrown towards the pylon, whether it was the out route that Turner scored on against Michigan State or any of the various rollout run/pass option plays the Huskers have run for receivers out of the backfield. Last week, out of the same trips formation, Nebraska flipped it to Ameer Abdullah on a swing pass to the weak side. Penn State has a lot to account for in this situation.
Here, out of trips right, Nebraska runs Ben Cotton (the inside receiver) on a flag route to the corner. Penn State’s in a straight Cover 1. Both wideouts take their defenders in, then back out towards the pylon. Turner’s doing nothing more than running a slant, which is tough to defend even if you know it’s coming. Based on how it was defended, it’s unlikely Penn State did. Nebraska’s been criticized for being “too cute” in the red zone of late, but this is a safe and well-conceived play based on what the Huskers have already put on film this season.
As for THE PLAY, there’s probably little else that needs to be said. If you’re watching it in slow motion, it’s probably a touchdown. Watch it full-speed, however, and it’s nearly impossible to rule that a touchdown on the field. It simply happened too fast.
In that case, the rule benefits Nebraska. As many have noted, it’s really not any more complicated than that.