In the sports world, the phrase “control your own destiny” is often used to describe certain scenarios. At times, it may be thrown around so much that it begins to be taken for granted, but its frequent usage speaks to its power.
Unfortunately, for the Penn State Nittany Lions, there have been far too many instances over the past calendar year where things were taken out of their control and put in the hands of others. Today, the Nittany Lions (6-4, 4-2) went from controlling their own fate to relying on an outside source in a matter of seconds, and it played a big part in them losing a football game to the eighteenth ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers (8-2, 5-1), 32-23, at Memorial Stadium.
With nine minutes remaining, the Nittany Lions trailed 27-23 but were firmly in control of their own fate. Matt McGloin found Matt Lehman in the flat. Lehman theoretically did the hard part by catching the football. The only thing left to do was run three yards into the end zone to put the Blue and White back in the lead. Lehman made it two yards and fought for the final one. As he did, David Santos knocked the ball loose and Daimion Stafford recovered it in the end zone.
Rather than a go-ahead touchdown, it was a momentum swinging touchback. Or was it?
The play would be reviewed, but at this point, the Nittany Lions no longer controlled their own destiny. It was up to the replay official who, according to head referee John O’Neil, did not have any angles that suggested the call should be overturned. “It’s ultimately his [the replay official’s]decision,” said O’Neil in a statement.
Several angles show that the call should have been reversed, perhaps none better then this one here.
Speaking candidly after the game, McGloin knew all along that the decision would not be overturned. “We’re not going to get that call here. We’re not going to get that call ever, actually against any team. It doesn’t matter who the refs are. We will never get that call,” said McGloin.
The fiery senior did not stop there. “It is us against the world, and we are never going to get those calls.”
Going back to the controversial play, two questions can be asked: Did the replay official simply believe that there was not enough evidence to overturn the call? McGloin does not think so.
If not a blown call, then is a bigger force at work here. Are referees — as McGloin seemed to suggest — purposely targeting the Nittany Lions as a result of last November’s scandal?
Bill O’Brien and other players were more diplomatic. “We don’t believe anyone is out to get us. We’re just trying to figure out how to score points and to stop people,” said O’Brien.
Matt Stankiewitch and John Urschel talked about missed opportunities. Even outspoken seniors like Michael Mauti and Stephon Morris did not take the bait. “You have to hold onto the football. It’s not my job to grade the referees,” said Mauti.
A lot went wrong before and after the fumble to give the Nittany Lions their fourth loss of the season. A 20-6 halftime lead turned into a tie game within the first five minutes of the second half due to porous defense and a McGloin interception setting the Cornhuskers up deep in Nittany Lions territory.
After regaining the lead on a Sam Ficken field goal, Mauti forced Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez to fumble on the Cornhuskers ensuing drive. Jake Fagnano recovered it in the end zone for a touchback but less than a minute later, the Nittany Lions were forced to punt. The Cornhuskers marched 71 yards, and this time they finished the job as Martinez found Jamal Turner over the middle from 5 yards out to go in front 27-23.
Less than three minutes later, the fumble happened. The defense would clamp down, giving the offense a few more opportunities, but they never even got a first down the rest of the way. An intentional grounding call on McGloin in his own end zone resulted in a safety. After another failed drive, the Cornhuskers added a field goal in the final minute to put the game out of reach.
After confusing the Cornhuskers for much of the first half, the Nittany Lions were outscored 26-3 in the final thirty minutes of action. It gives the second half of the season opening loss against Ohio a run for the ugliest half of football all season, and at the same time, one is drawn back to the upheld decision on the fumble. They nearly had a lead on the road against a team that has lost only two home games since the start of 2010, and one different decision could have overshadowed some poor football.
In a matter of seconds, it slipped away. Neither the refs nor the team could get it back.
“You can’t leave the game in the referees’ hands. We know that,” said Stephon Morris.
In a calendar year where it could be argued that several things have been unfair, this was another example of the Nittany Lions learning Morris’ words the hard way.
- Zack Zwinak finished with a career high 141 rushing yards.
- Zwinak’s 50-yard touchdown run early in the first quarter was the first time the Nittany Lions scored on their opening drive since the third game of the season against Navy.
- Allen Robinson led the way in receiving yards with 97.
- Robinson needs only 1 reception in the final two games to set the Penn State single season record.
- Running back Ammer Abdullah finished with 116 yards and was the first opposing running back to hit the century mark against the Nittany Lions since Beau Blankenship did it in Week 1 for Ohio.
- Sam Ficken made a career high 3 field goals.
- Gerald Hodges and Glenn Carson led the way for the defense with 14 tackles apiece.
- Alex Butterworth averaged a season high 47.7 yards punting.