STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — A transfer kicker walked into the only warm place in Beaver Stadium on Saturday night and wondered what to do.
It was nothing more than a cinderblock room stuffed with chairs and cameras and journalists and one microphone. It’s plain but functional, the way most things are at Penn State.
“Do I sit down?” Patrick Smith said about 15 minutes after hitting the game-winning field goal to give Nebraska a 23-20 win over Penn State in overtime.
Yes, Pat. You sit down and everyone will ask you questions about what it was like and could you ever imagine and what does it mean. That’s how these things go.
“Don’t act too serious,” Smith told the reporters. “You’ll make me nervous if you act serious.”
That’s how kickers work. They’re strange. Hitting a 42-yard field goal in the freezing cold to win the game? Not a problem.
“I was pumped up,” Smith said. “Those are the moments we live for. That’s the best scenario you could ever imagine. Really, I was just excited for the opportunity to finish the game. I’ve been wanting one all year.”
What about having to do it after you’d just hit a 37-yarder but had it called back for a false start?
“I just kind of told them, ‘Hey guys, calm down, chill out, I got this. This is nothing. This is what I live for. This is what I want,’” Smith said.
Fine. How about a 22-yarder at a severe angle to tie the game?
“The 22-yarder from the right hash was almost as tough as the game-winner. You’re at such an extreme angle on that kick. I was trying to rally the ref for a couple feet inside the hash.”
That was a no go from the referee, but not for Smith. He hit that one too. But the post-game interview? For a kid who Missouri didn’t want as a walk-on? A kid that spent three years kicking at Western Illinois and came to Nebraska with what looked like pretty slim prospects of actually winning the job in his only season left to play?
That’s the tough part. And as we near the end of Bo Pelini’s sixth season at Nebraska, that’s sort of the defining image of his time thus far in Lincoln.
The Huskers are a team that quite clearly feels the enormous outside pressure that surrounds a powerhouse college football program and, more often than not, it finds a way to respond.
Nebraska overcame a lot in this one. A tough road environment. More injuries on the offensive line. No starting quarterback for the last three quarters. A questionable personal foul penalty that negated what might have been the play that won the game for Nebraska in regulation. Fumbles. (More fumbles.)
“There’s a lot of character in that locker room,” Pelini said. “They’re a tight-knit group.”
It might be more than that. The 2013 Huskers have their flaws but there are hints of promise here at the end of autumn. If Ameer Abdullah returns, he’s likely to become the first Nebraska back to rush for 1,000-yards in three different seasons. Randy Gregory is going to be even more fun to watch in a year. Same goes for the rest of the defensive line. There are potential all-conference type players at linebacker too. The defensive improvement overall this season is probably one of Pelini’s greatest achievements.
This hasn’t been a special season for Nebraska, but it has the beginnings of a special group of players, which is a point Pelini’s been stressing all along. He said it again on Saturday after the Huskers had put themselves on the ropes again and then fought their way off them. Again.
Pat Smith has only been a Husker for about five months now, but it was clear after the game of his career that the fight — maybe more than his kick on Saturday — is what he’ll remember from his short time in Lincoln.
“What’s amazing about this team is our ability to keep fighting no matter how much negativity comes our way,” he said. “Last week was such a tough game because we felt we played so well but it just wasn’t our day.
“It can be tough at times when you’re under the microscope. Nebraska’s a historic program and they have high expectations, as they should.”
He nailed that one too.