Luke McCaffrey got the start, and the offense looked energized as a result early on. Nebraska held a 27-6 lead at the halftime break, and things were breaking right for Big Red in the home-opener.
Nebraska won the day in this battle of two winless Big Ten programs, but damn did it make things difficult on itself.
The Blackshirts let Penn State into the red zone six times on the day, but Penn State only came away with one touchdown in those trips. Quite the role reversal from a week ago. The Huskers will certainly take it. That proved to be the difference as Nebraska escaped with a 30-23 win to move to 1-2 on the year.
The Lions outscored Nebraska 17-3 in the second half and outgained the Huskers 501 to 298.
But the defense closed the deal.
Things began with so much promise. It looked like Nebraska might run away with things.
Nebraska got points on its first four drives, and five of its first six. McCaffrey moved the ball well despite a sputtering run game. Nebraska got wideout Wan’Dale Robinson involved (12 first-half touches) and showed some creativity that was noticeably absent in Evanston a week ago.
Freshman wideout Zavier Betts took a fly sweep 45 yards to the house to put NU up 17-3. Safety Deontai Williams had a strip-sack, picked up the ball, and returned it for a score to go up 24-3.
But maybe Nebraska’s second possession was a foreboding sign.
Cam Taylor-Britt picked off Penn State starter Sean Clifford and returned it 55 yards to the Penn State 15-yard-line. Nebraska ran up the middle on first down, then up the middle on second down to pick up the first, then up the middle again for just a yard, then up the middle again for a loss of one. Third-and-goal from the 5 and McCaffrey saw his pass attempt bounce off wideout Kade Warner’s chest and fall harmless to the turf.
Nebraska started at the 15 and came away with only three points.
The theme of the week in practice was finishing.
Nebraska didn’t against Northwestern.
It didn’t on that second possession. As the game wore on, it seemed like the Huskers might fall victim to the same demons that have plagued it for quite some time now.
Credit Penn State for a quarterback change that provided a spark to the listless offense. Will Levis replaced Clifford after the scoop-and-score and got Penn State back into the game.
The Nittany Lions dominated time of possession 36:24-23:36, ran 91 plays to Nebraska’s 60, and slowly chipped away at the lead. Nebraska had just 95 yards of offense in the second half. McCaffrey finished with a modest line of 13-for-21 for 152 yards, a score and a pick. Nebraska, as a team, only ran for 146 yards.
The offense took a step, but it still has things to work out.
The defense, however, held down the fort.
And the team finally closed out a game.
Next time out: Nebraska will host Illinois on Nov. 21 at 11 a.m. CT.