A sunny Saturday capped off a horrendous week in Happy Valley. It was a day when healing struggled with injury and good wrestled with evil, and Nebraska’s 17-14 win over Penn State was just a subplot.
Which is how it should be.
It was a brutal circus at Penn State University. Every day seemed to bring more bad news about allegations of sexual assault against young boys. Highly-placed Penn State officials seemed to have more concern with the school’s image than finding out the truth about crimes against young people whose lives have been scarred forever. After school president Graham Spanier and iconic coach Joe Paterno were fired by the PSU board of trustees, and Penn State students responded with a near riot to support Paterno, the nation’s attention was focused on State College, Pa.
It was as tough atmosphere for a football game, but it turned out to be just what the embattled campus needed.
In his postgame press conference, Bo Pelini said he originally thought the game wouldn’t – and shouldn’t – be played. It’s hard to argue with that. But the Penn State football team had nothing to do with the sickening child rapes that former PSU defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky is accused of performing, and it deserved its Senior Day, even without Paterno in the stadium. Playing the game turned out to be the right call, mainly because of what transpired before the opening kickoff.
The Nebraska and Penn State players met at midfield and knelt in a huge circle, with many former Nittany Lion football players gathering around the players. They spent nearly two minutes in prayer while the ESPN telecast captured the scene at the silent stadium, which gradually came to life in rhythmic clapping.
NU running backs coach Ron Brown was right in the middle of everything, serving as a catalyst for the healing process. He prayed for an outpouring of God’s grace, and that truth would prevail. “Lord, we know we don’t have control over all these events that took place this week,” he said, ”but we do know that you are bigger than it all.”
It was a moment that made me proud Brown is associated with the Cornhusker football program.
Once the game got underway, there were few surprises. Nebraska had to fight, claw, and go deep into the playbook to scratch out a three-point win over a team that has very little offensive punch. The Huskers are an inconsistent bunch and do not look like a championship-caliber team here in mid-November. Yet you have to give them credit for hanging on and winning just the type of game Penn State wanted to play – a fistfight that hinged on turnovers and the kicking game. Nebraska’s kicking game advantage was probably the decisive element in the on-field struggle.
And the battle itself may better prepare NU for another tough road trip to Ann Arbor, Mich., next weekend. Michigan’s defense showed some starch against fading Illinois in Champaign Saturday. The middle contest of the Huskers’ season-ending three-games-in-13-days test will not be an easy one.
For Nebraska, this game was a struggle the entire way, even when the Huskers took a 17-0 lead with 8:51 left in the third quarter. At that point, the Huskers misfired when they had a chance to deliver a knockout blow. They allowed a proud and resilient Penn State team to come back
Matt McGloin, a junior quarterback who has marginal skills at best, has shared time all season with seven-game starter Rob Bolden. He went the distance against Nebraska, completing 16 of 34 passes for 193 yards and no interceptions. He seemed to be drawing energy from the 1982 Penn State alums gathered around the field, who still have memories of the way Todd Blackledge passed the Nittany Lions downfield. Luckily for the Big Red, the 2011 Penn State team simply does not have that much firepower. It got everything it possibly could have out of its shaky passing game, but it wasn’t quite enough to win.
For Nebraska, Taylor Martinez completed 13 of 26 passes for 143 yards with no interceptions. He has become more consistent each week, although he is getting very little support from his wide receivers, who had at least four drops and are proving to be more of a liability than an asset when it comes to catching the football. Brandon Kinnie is having a very forgettable senior season.
Jamal Turner once again barely saw the field. He must be having all kinds of trouble in practice because nobody in front of him looks that good, although Kenny Bell shows promise and at this point is the best of the bunch as an undersized but speedy redshirt freshman.
Tight end Kyler Reed, who made three catches Saturday, appears to be recovering from his injuries, and represents Nebraska’s best hope for big pass plays against Michigan and Iowa.
Penn State’s defense played with inspiration and passion. With Nebraska leading 17-7, a dynamic hit by a slanting Nittany Lion defensive tackle disrupted a handoff from Rex Burkhead to fullback Tyler Legate, and Penn State recovered at midfield with 9:35 left in the game.
Nebraska’s offensive line had its good moments, but after Burkhead and Legate lost the fumble, it failed to execute the rest of the game. The Huskers could have saved their fans a few anxious moments by simply getting one first down on their last two possessions, but didn’t have enough punch up front to get it done. This time, however, the Blackshirts made the stops when it counted.
Then the teams met once more at midfield. And once again, there was Ron Brown at the center.
Brown, who coached under Tom Osborne and Frank Solich, was the first assistant hired when Pelini started to put together his staff in December 2007. A dynamic speaker who has run his own Christian ministry for many years, Brown is a good complement to the terse, sometimes combative personality of his head coach. On this day, he sent both teams off the field with his usual head-bobbing, hand-gesturing, gut-level postgame prayer.
Both teams got up and left the field walking tall as the crowd broke into long, sustained applause. The young men on both sides richly deserved it. They had started the healing.
Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker is a longtime Nebraska sports writer, having covered University of Nebraska and high school sports for more than 25 years. He started writing for this website in 2008. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org