The focus of more than a few fans after Penn State’s 56-44 win was the ending — and yeah, let’s be honest, it wasn’t pretty.
We’ll get to the Nittany Lions’ shoddy second half in a bit. But don’t forget about Joe Moorhead’s offense making Nebraska look like a Pop Warner team out there. Penn State’s attack put forth a historic night.
James Franklin said, “We were able to put up a bunch of points” — but it was more than that. After weeks of frustration, the Nittany Lions reminded us all what Moorhead’s scheme looks like when run to virtual perfection.
“We weren’t really playing with confidence and playing with swagger,” running back Saquon Barkley said about the past few weeks for the offense. “We were having fun out there today.”
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It’s pretty easy to have fun when you’re hanging 609 yards on a conference foe. That’s the most yards Penn State’s recorded in a game since dropping 661 on Rutgers in 1995. Of course, 42 of those yards came on a Penn State touchdown pass with 58 seconds left, leading to a heated exchange between Joe Paterno and Rutgers coach Doug Graber after the game.
There were no late touchdowns for the Nittany Lions this go-around. Penn State dominated through and through, racking up 42 points in the first half — the most since scoring 56 in the opening two quarters against Illinois in 2005.
By the end of the night, the Nittany Lions had 32 first downs, the most since 35 against Minnesota in 2005, while averaging 8.2 yards per play.
If Barkley, Trace McSorley and company were kept in the game, Penn State might’ve ended up with 75 points.
▪ For 23 seniors and probably Barkley, Saturday was their final game at Beaver Stadium.
But there’s someone else who might be in that group, too: Backup quarterback Tommy Stevens.
There’s a possibility Stevens transfers after this season. McSorley is fully expected to stay for his final year of eligibility, so Stevens wouldn’t start until 2019. That’s a long time to wait.
An “All-American decoy,” according to Mike Gesicki, Stevens was used on Saturday.
Early in the fourth quarter, he caught a pass out of the backfield from McSorley at Nebraska’s 34-yard line, side-stepped two defenders and was off. The officials ruled him out at the 17-yard line, but it was an impressive play nonetheless.
Then when he took over for McSorley, Stevens needed six plays to find the end zone. He rushed for 30 yards, let Miles Sanders dash for 15 and found Nick Bowers in the end zone for a 15-yard score — the tight end’s first catch of his career.
Beaver Stadium patrons hope to see Stevens next season. But if he leaves, he’s going to make another fanbase pretty excited.
▪ Five players — Jason Cabinda, Shareef Miller, Kevin Givens, Tyrell Chavis and Robert Windsor — combined for four sacks.
The Nittany Lions have had more than four sacks just twice this season and once in their last eight games (seven against Michigan on Oct. 21).
▪ Penn State’s defense forced eight three-and-outs — six of which came in the first half.
That’s pretty darn good.
▪ It didn’t matter too much, but Penn State was missing linebacker Manny Bowen, wide receiver Irvin Charles and tight end Jon Holland.
We knew about Bowen; after missing last week’s game against Rutgers due to a violation of team rules, Franklin said Tuesday that he wouldn’t be available for the second consecutive week. Brandon Smith filled in nicely, leading the team with 13 tackles.
But Charles and Holland were surprise absences. Holland surely would’ve been on the field for garbage time, instead giving way to Bowers and Tom Pancoast.
Meanwhile, Franklin was asked about Charles, who has made a significant impact on punt coverage as a gunner this season. The coach said Charles “wasn’t available this week, and I’ll leave it at that.”
▪ With 10:13 to go in regulation, Penn State led 56-24. Stevens’ score made it an insurmountable lead, but Nebraska scored three touchdowns from that point forward.
So, what happened? Well, bad defense and understandable mismatches for a mix of backups.
On Nebraska’s first fourth-quarter score, Stanley Morgan beat Zech McPhearson for an eight-yard grab in the corner of the end zone. No offense to McPhearson, but Morgan is going win that battle more times than not. After a 185-yard performance, Morgan is second in the Big Ten in receiving, trailing only Maryland’s D.J. Moore. The kid is good, and no one should fault McPhearson — a redshirt freshman — for losing that one-on-one.
On the Cornhuskers’ second touchdown drive of the final stanza, JD Spielman — the Big Ten’s third-leading receiver — picked on freshman cornerback Lamont Wade for a 31-yard gain to set up a one-yard TD. And on Nebraska’s third and final scoring series, Spielman had to be tackled by Jake Cooper, Penn State’s third-stringer at Will, on a 24-yard gain before another short score.
Franklin admitted after the game that he’s still not sure when to put in the backups. With a 32-point lead in the fourth quarter, if the full first-team was out there, he probably would’ve received complaints that those players are at an injury risk in garbage time. It’s a double-edged sword.
But for anyone who thinks the Nittany Lions gave up or believes they can’t finish or holds any other hot takes of the same ilk, this reporter disagrees. An effective passing offense — that threw for 253 yards in the second half against Ohio State — did what it’s capable of doing, picking on guys who don’t normally see the field.
It was ugly, but as simple as that.