LINCOLN, Neb. — The fans flooded the stadium with red and the winds topped 30 miles per hour.
The unfamiliar scene more than 1,000 miles from home served as the backdrop to a familiar result.
Penn State couldn’t make enough big second-half plays to defeat a quality opponent.
The Nittany Lions squandered a sizable halftime lead as they fell to 18th-ranked Nebraska 32-23 before 85,527 fans Saturday at Memorial Stadium.
Penn State’s first trip here since Nebraska joined the Big Ten in 2011 included controversy, as officials ruled tight end Matt Lehman fumbled a potential go-ahead touchdown before crossing the goal line with 7:35 left.
Penn State (6-4, 4-2 Big Ten) trailed 27-23 when Damion Stafford recovered the ball in the end zone. The play marked the only sequence where Penn State almost registered a second-half touchdown.
Nebraska (8-2, 5-1) outscored Penn State 26-3 in the second half. The Nittany Lions led 20-6 at halftime.
“There’s nothing we can do about that call,” said middle linebacker Glenn Carson, who collected a career-high 14 tackles. “It’s one of those things where it’s part of the game and we can’t leave a game in the officials’ hands. We made a lot of mistakes on offense and defense. It really doesn’t come down to that call.”
Penn State’s gaffes ranged from three turnovers — including two inside Nebraska’s 10-yard line — to allowing 267 rushing yards.
The setback resembled Penn State’s second-half meltdowns in losses to Ohio University, Virginia and Ohio State. In their four losses, the Nittany Lions have been outscored 56-6 in the third quarter. Nebraska outscored Penn State 14-3 in the quarter on Saturday.
“They just made more plays than we did, kind of like the Ohio State game,” cornerback Stephon Morris said. “(Nebraska) made more plays than we did in the second half. The losses ... That’s four. That’s all about the second half.”
Playing with the wind at their back in the fourth quarter, the Cornhuskers took their first lead on Taylor Martinez’s 5-yard touchdown pass to Jamal Turner with 10:57 left. The touchdown, which gave Nebraska a 27-23 lead, was the game-winner.
After having the wind at their backs in the second and third quarters, Penn State’s offense played into it during the fourth. The Nittany Lions’ best drive of the quarter started with Matt McGloin’s 3-yard pass to Allen Robinson and ended with the fumble. In between, Zach Zwinak rushed for 23 yards and Robinson caught a 38-yard pass from Matt McGloin to tie O.J. McDuffie and Bobby Engram as Penn State’s single-season school receptions recption. The catch was Robinson’s 62nd of the season.
Zwinak had his fourth 100-yard performance against a Big Ten opponent, rushing for 141 yards on 21 carries. His 50-yard touchdown run into the wind less than two minutes into the game gave Penn State an early lead.
Penn State’s final two drives included little forward movement. The defense produced a three-and-out following Lehman’s fumble, but McGloin was called for intentional grounding from the end zone and the safety increased Nebraska’s lead to 29-23. The defense then produced another a three-and-out, but McGloin threw four straight incompletions, the final one coming with 2:39 left.
Brett Maher booted a 33-yard field goal with 23 seconds remaining to increase Nebraska’s lead to nine pionts.
The wind, which was blowing from the south, limited both offenses. McGloin completed 18 of 37 passes for 240 yards and threw his fourth interception of the season in the third quarter. Martinez completed 12 of 20 passes for 171 yards.
Ameer Abdullah led Nebraska with 116 yards on 31 carries. Martinez added 113 yards.
Penn State ends its season with home games against Indiana and Wisconsin. Nebraska needs one more victory to qualify for next month’s Big Ten title game.
“Losing is a terrible feeling, miserable,” Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said. “It’s like a party that dies. It doesn’t feel any different. It feels not very good.”
Saturday marked the second straight tight contest between the Nittany Lions and Cornhuskers. Nebraska won last year’s game 17-14. The schools staged their first conference meeting three days after former coach Joe Paterno’s firing.
Their second meeting as conference rivals will be remembered for brutal winds – and a call that didn’t flap in Penn State’s direction.
“Every loss is tough, especially when you have a ranked team like that up 20-6 in their home and you end up losing the game,” McGloin said. “It’s tough, but at the same time, we have two games left and that’s how we’re looking at it.”
Follow Guy Cipriano on Twitter @ccdtguy.