LINCOLN — Moments after Nebraska’s 32-23 win over Penn State on Saturday – the Huskers’ third-straight in come from behind fashion – athletic director Tom Osborne was walking through the Hawks Championship Center lobby, on his way to the locker room.
“Never in doubt,” he said with a smile.
And the thing is, in the locker room where Osborne eventually ended up, maybe there never was a doubt.
In this week’s episode of the Huskers Comeback Special, Nebraska trailed by 14 at the half. Penn State’s “NASCAR offense” raced to 255 yards in the first half behind a combination of quarterback Matt McGloin (160 yards passing in the first half, one touchdown) and running back Zach Zwinak (82 yards, one touchdown).
More importantly, however, the Nittany Lions had out-tempoed the tempo-heavy Huskers. Nebraska burned all three first half timeouts on defense, but there were problems when there weren’t any timeouts left.
“I put our guys in a bad situation a couple times because I didn’t get them the call quick enough,” coach Bo Pelini said. “I didn’t handle the tempo good enough in a few aspects in (the second) quarter.”
Nebraska’s prolific offense wasn’t picking up the slack. The Huskers ran just 14 plays in the second quarter, picking up 37 yards and punting three times into the teeth of a fierce southern wind. Perhaps the only positive to come from the Huskers’ second quarter was that they got the ball to start the second half.
Down a pair of scores, Nebraska had the Nittany Lions right where it wanted them.
It took the Huskers just over three minutes to drive 75-yards and score its first touchdown of the day courtesy of a 1-yard Imani Cross plunge. A minute later, safety Daimion Stafford – last seen in the first half having a heated discussion with Pelini following Penn State’s second touchdown – stepped in front of a McGloin pass and returned the interception down to the Penn State 4-yard line. Two plays, Cross again crashed through to the end zone to make it 20-20 with 9:37 left in the third quarter.
“In the back of my mind, I was hoping that we could get even by the fourth quarter,” Pelini said. “To pull even basically within the first six minutes was big for us psychologically.”
Comeback complete? Not quite. The teams traded scores — a field goal for Penn State midway through the third to retake the lead, and a 5-yard touchdown pass from Taylor Martinez (275 total yards) to Jamal Turner to give Nebraska its first lead of the game – setting up the play that was already burning up message boards moments after the final whistle.
On second-and-goal from Nebraska’s 3-yard line, McGloin found tight end Matt Lehman in the flat. He bowled towards the end zone and leapt over a Huskers defender but linebacker David Santos was there to meet him at the goal line.
The ball came loose. Nebraska recovered in the end zone. The officials ruled it a fumble and then everything stopped for the official review.
The Penn State partisans saw a certain touchdown – the ball breaking the plane seconds before Santos forced the fumble. Nebraska fans, and the officials ultimately, still saw a fumble.
“One thing that helps you in that situation is how they called it on the field,” Pelini said. “You have to have indisputable evidence to overrule it and something that is that bang-bang usually ends up going how they ruled it on the field.”
Penn State’s quarterback saw it differently.
“We’re not going to get that call here,” McGloin said. “We’re not going to get that call ever, against any team. It doesn’t matter who the referees are, we’ll never get that call.”
The Nittany Lions survived the controversial call, forcing a quick three-and-out, but this time it was Brett Maher’s turn to step up and cement the comeback. With a strong wind at his back, Maher drilled a 69-yard punt, tied for his career long, that went out of bounds at the Penn State 2-yard line. Two plays later, defensive end Cameron Meredith rushed McGloin into an intentional grounding call in the end zone resulting in a safety.
Penn State again held, forcing the Huskers to punt. With 3:44 remaining, the Nittany Lions were still only down a score but Penn State failed to pick up a first down, leading the Huskers to a final Maher field goal, his third of the day, that finally gave Nebraska a two-score lead.
Just another by-the-numbers comeback in a season that’s been full of them, right? Some might even call it fun, actually.
“I wouldn’t call it fun because some people get scared,” cornerback Ciante Evans said. “It’s almost a habit since we do it week in and week out. We all believe in each other so we go out and do it again.”
Like Tom Osborne said – never in doubt.