No crop of Penn State players was as prepared for an overtime game at Beaver Stadium as the current senior class.
They’d found themselves in three of them dating to last season, and all three of those ended in stunning, chest-thumping wins. The fourth and final one of their careers slipped away, however, as Nebraska kicker Pat Smith drilled a 42-yard field goal to send the Cornhuskers to a 23-20 win and spoil senior day for Penn State.
“I think that we felt really comfortable in overtime,” senior linebacker Glenn Carson said. “I think everybody on our team thought we were going to get it done but it just didn’t go our way this time.”
After a back-and-forth regulation period that saw Penn State (6-5, 3-4) and Nebraska (8-3, 5-2) swap the lead five times, Penn State failed to put points on the board on its first possession of overtime. The Nittany Lions gained five yards on two running plays before quarterback Christian Hackenberg fired incomplete to set up fourth down.
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Penn State sent kicker Sam Ficken out to convert what woud’ve been a 37-yard field goal. But Ficken, who missed an extra point following Penn State’s opening touchdown of the game, booted the ball wide right.
Smith walked out three plays later and made a kick from the same distance but the Cornhuskers were flagged for a false start. Smith hit his second attempt to seal the game.
“He’s tough kid. He’ll bounce back,” tight end Jesse James said of Ficken. He’s a strong-minded kid. He’s been through a lot.”
But 17 Penn State players won’t go through another game day experience like the ones they’ve grown used to over the past few years.
Fifth-year senior Garry Gilliam who is giving up his NCAA-granted sixth year next season, said he shot a glance up at the stands as he came out for the game and once more as he left the field for the final time. Carson did the same.
“It’s just a heart-breaker. It’s a tough one to swallow,” Carson said. “It’s been such an up-and-down season throughout the year and it would’ve been really nice to get this one on senior day but on the upside, we’ve got one more game. We play a tough team so it’s going to be a challenge. We’ve got another opportunity to get a big win.”
Penn State had that chance on Saturday, too.
But the Nittany Lions couldn’t put the Cornhuskers away. Fighting for the chance to play in a New Years Day bowl game, Nebraska refused to lay down even after turning the ball over twice and being forced to punt eight times.
The first half was a battle of defenses as both Penn State and Nebraska combined for 11 punts and just 13 points. Penn State got on the board first when Hackenberg hit tight end Adam Breneman for a touchdown pass from two yards out. After Ficken hit one of the uprights on the extra point try, Nebraska needed three possessions before it would rebound.
Then, quarterback Ron Kellogg III led the Cornhuskers on a seven play drive capped by a 27-yard pass to Quincy Enunwa who was uncovered at the line of scrimmage. Smith’s extra point kick gave Nebraska a one-point halftime lead.
Penn State’s defense started quickly in the second half as defensive C.J. Olaniyan got to Kellogg and slapped the ball from his grip. Olaniyan recovered the fumble, too and Penn State’s offense needed just two plays on a short field to take a 13-7 lead with a seven-yard run from Hackenberg.
Special teams continued to bog down Penn State’s effort, however. Nebraska reclaimed the lead when Kenny Bell took the ensuing kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown. Ficken tried to bring Bell down but the Nebraska receiver hurdled him as Ficken lunged at Penn State’s 30-yard line.
“It was big,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. “We turned the football over a couple of times and we gave them a short field. Kenny stepped up and made a play.”
But the Nittany Lions erred again as Hackenberg threw an interception to Ciante Evans two possessions later. The Cornhuskers turned it into a field goal to take a 17-13 lead.
James turned in Penn State’s highlight reel play of the game on the first snap of the fourth quarter. He crossed the field and hauled in an intermediate pass from Hackenberg. James galloped the rest of the way down the sideline, throwing a stiff arm into Nebraska safety Corey Cooper en route to the 46-yard touchdown.
Nebraska turned in a 12-play scoring drive that was cut off at the goal line by Mike Hull and Brandon Bell. Both players met Kellogg just before the Nebraska quarterback got to the goal line. Kellogg took a heavy shot from Hull and Bell ripped the ball away from him. Nebraska’s Sam Burtch fell on the loose ball and the Cornhuskers were forced to kick a game-tying field goal from 19 yards out.
“Our team realizes that we still have one more game,” Gilliam said. “You could still see in everyone’s eyes that we’ve got to fight and get our seventh win here.”