In the unlikeliest of ironies, Nebraska's much-maligned kicking game stole a victory for the Big Red at Penn State.
Two devastating fumbles and a pair of untimely penalties appeared to set up a frustrating defeat for the Huskers, who by now must own the copyright on the cliche, "Shoot yourself in the foot." But you can't doubt their heart. Playing under several handicaps – some self-imposed and some imposed by bad calls by Big Ten game officials – Nebraska willed itself to another tough conference road win on a windy, snowy Senior Day at Beaver Stadium.
After kicking a game-winning field goal from 37 yards only to see it nullified by a penalty, senior walk-on Pat Smith coolly booted a 42-yarder to clinch the Huskers' 23-20 overtime win.
The kicking game was the difference for Nebraska, which got its only second-half touchdown on Kenny Bell's 99-yard kickoff return. For most of the conference season, NU would have been happy to simply get through 60 minutes without a major breakdown in some aspect of the kicking game. But on this day, it was Penn State which suffered the breakdowns. Punter Alex Butterworth dropped a long snap and had his punt blocked. Placekicker Sam Ficken clanked a first-quarter extra point try off the right upright, then missed a 37-yard field goal attempt in overtime to open the door for Nebraska on a day where the teams combined for 20 punts and seven fumbles. It was drama of the most agonizing sort.
"Unbelievable football game!" shouted Husker Sports Network color commentator Matt Davison after Smith's game-winning kick finally ended the tense struggle. "Let's get out of Happy Valley!"
We can safely say this game was memorable. On one hand, it was the latest in a series of maddeningly sloppy performances by the Huskers, who at times looked almost as confused in Game 11 as they did in Game 1. On the other, it was a stirring, almost heroic performance by an injury-ravaged team that overcame a series of bad breaks to improve its record to 8-3 (5-2 Big Ten). Nebraska has four consecutive wins over the Nittany Lions (6-5, 3-4), including a pair of three-point wins on the road.
Nothing comes easy for these mistake-prone Huskers, who failed to take advantage of several scoring opportunities and looked much less physical on offense than they did against Michigan State last week. Speaking of which, this was the first time all season a team has won the week after it played the Spartans.
Last year, the Nittany Lions cried foul in a 32-23 loss at Lincoln, insisting that a questionable call on a fumble at the goal line had cost them the game, even though they ended up losing by nine points. This year, the calls went strongly Penn State's way – especially a stunningly ridiculous unnecessary roughness penalty on Husker receiver Sam Burtch that nullified a long touchdown run by Ameer Abdullah.
This was the worst the Huskers have been jobbed by an officiating crew since the 16-penalty debacle at College Station, Texas, in 2010. Generally, Big Ten officiating has been much better than it was in the Big 12, but if they hurt Penn State at Lincoln last year, they more than made up for it this game at Happy Valley, although senior Andrew Rodriguez's false start on the Penn State 1-yard line later in that drive was legit and probably could have cost Nebraska the game.
It was not a good day for the Husker wide receivers, who dropped passes and hung each other out to dry by whiffing on blocks on quick screen passes. But thank heaven for the kicking game. I never thought I'd write that sentence this season.
In the second quarter, Brandon Reilly, a redshirt freshman from Lincoln Southwest, blocked a punt to set up Nebraska's offense near midfield. It was the Huskers' first blocked punt since their road trip to Waco, Texas, in 2009 – the 20-10 victory over Baylor where Cody Green started at quarterback and Jared Crick got a school-record five sacks.
But Nebraska frittered away its chance to benefit from the short field when Abdullah fumbled at the 1-yard line, and Penn State recovered in the end zone for a touchback. A quarter later, the Huskers handed the Nittany Lions a cheap touchdown by fumbling inside their own 10-yard line.You could almost feel the heart of Husker Nation collectively sinking into its stomach.
This sort of thing has become systemic over the past few years. Each week, I think the breaks will certainly even up, but most weeks, they don't. Over the past six years, Pelini's teams have languished in the bottom half of the NCAA ratings for turnover margin. I've lost my confidence in the ability of the Husker coaching staff to get their team to play smart and avoid catastrophic mistakes. Pelini's Huskers are not sound fundamentally and they do not inspire confidence – but somehow you can rarely count them out of a game.
Under Pelini, the Huskers have been like a half-miler who insists on running the entire race in lane 2. They seem to continually be their own worst enemy. After awhile, you can't blame it on bad luck anymore.
But you have to balance that against Abdullah rushing for 147 yards on a sore ankle, and very likely wrapping up a first-team All Big Ten selection in the process. Or linebackers David Santos and Michael Rose helping string together some stops for a Blackshirt defense that held Penn State to 2 of 14 third-down conversions.
Or Smith, the walk-on senior placekicker who transferred in from Western Illinois to get a chance to play hero in a Big Ten football game. After missing an extra point kick early in the season, he has had a consistent season, making 10 of 11 field goal attempts, including three of three against Penn State. His confidence was a breath of fresh air for a team that has lacked it at crunch time much of the year.
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