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Penn State Loses Senior Day, Overtime Clash With Nebraska, 23-20

It almost seemed like déjà vu. There was a fumble in the end zone, a terrible call that negated a touchdown, snow, overtime, and an opponent in red at Beaver Stadium. It seemed like history was repeating itself — like last year’s Senior Day victory over Wisconsin was happening all over again.

Except, this time, it was the visiting Nebraska Cornhuskers that would leave Happy Valley with the win. What this game shared with last year’s overtime thriller against the Badgers, however, was that the win looked as though it could have gone either way for all four quarters.

The statistics tell you just how close it was. Nebraska picked up 19 first downs in the game compared to the Nittany Lions’ 18. In total offense, the Huskers racked up 360 yards while Penn State gained 387. The box score doesn’t ever tell the whole story though. This was a game defined by mistakes, whether those mistakes were by the coaches, the players, or even in some cases the referees.

The most glaring error is the Sam Ficken missed extra point on the first score of the game. Christian Hackenberg found Adam Breneman in the end zone for the second straight week, and it looked like the Nittany Lions would jump out to a 7-0 lead until Ficken’s PAT went wide. It seemed harmless at the time, but it’s all anyone could think about as Nebraska’s Pat Smith hit a game-tying field goal to force overtime late in the fourth quarter.

Nebraska put its first points of the game on the board early in the second quarter, capping off a 91-yard drive with a 27-yard touchdown pass from Ron Kellogg III to Quincy Enunwa. There would not be any more scoring for the rest of the first half, as both defenses were playing well.

Early in the third quarter, Kellogg was sacked by C.J. Olaniyan, who managed to strip the ball and recover it at the Nebraska 8-yard line. Two plays later, Christian Hackenberg took a naked bootleg to the right untouched into the end zone for a seven-yard score that made it 13-7 in favor of the Nittany Lions.

That lead lasted all of 15 seconds. Kenny Bell took the ensuing kickoff to the house to re-establish Cornhuskers’ lead at 14-13. A Nebraska field goal a few drives later would increase that lead to four points.

Penn State didn’t roll over, though. On the first play of the fourth quarter, Hackenberg executed a pretty play-action fake before hitting Jesse James short to the left. James was able to make a few men miss and found himself with nothing but green in front of him on the left sideline as he reached the end zone for a 46-yard score.

Late in the fourth quarter, with the Cornhusker offense driving into the red zone, Nebraska faced a third-and-goal from the Penn State five-yard line. Kellogg kept the ball and looked to have an easy lane to the end zone before freshman linebacker Brandon Bell blew up the play, forcing a fumble that Nebraska recovered before hitting a chip shot field goal to tie the game.

Overtime was short and sweet, or short and sour if you were the Nittany Lions. Two Zach Zwinak runs and an incomplete Hackenberg pass brought Sam Ficken onto the field for a 37-yard attempt that sailed wide right. Nebraska similarly ran twice before an incomplete pass brought up fourth down. Pat Smith nailed a field goal attempt from 42 yards out to close out a hard-fought game in favor of the Cornhuskers.

“This is a game we really wanted to win, our last game here at Beaver Stadium,” John Urschel said. “We all made mistakes. There were all things that we could have done individually to help our team today. We’re not packing it in though. We’re going out this week and practicing hard.

“I love every single guy in that locker room and I’m going to cherish every moment and make sure we won’t have any regrets in our last week,” Urschel continued. When the field goal went through, my heart sank. I walked across the field, shook their hands, and that was that.”

While the seniors were certainly upset that they walked out of Beaver Stadium for the last time winless, the younger players on the team shared that sentiment as they wanted to pull out a win for a group that will go down as being part of Penn State history for choosing not to transfer.

“I’m pretty close with all the seniors as we all are,” Breneman said. “It’s a pretty special senior class that we have here and it was tough to not be able to pull that one out for them. But we still have one more opportunity and we can go get a win in Madison and we’re going to work hard to do that.”

“I mention the seniors all the time [to the media],” Hackenberg said. “A lot of those guys are up front for me blocking like Adam Gress, Ty Howle, John Urschel. They mean a lot to me. A lot of those guys really took me under my wing so it was frustrating that we couldn’t win for them.”

Despite losing in their final game at Beaver Stadium, these seniors have etched their names in annals of Penn State football history. Though this class didn’t have any stars that led the way like Michael Mauti and Michael Zordich did last year, it was a well-rounded group of players who certainly all understood what it means to be a Penn State football player.

“This senior class has a special place in Penn State history,” Bill O’Brien said. “This class stuck with this program and this university during a very tough time. I think everybody needs to remember that. I think this senior class will go down as being just as special as last year’s was.”

Game notes:

  • Penn State drops to 6-5 (3-4 Big Ten) with the loss, failing to clinch a winning season. Nebraska advances to 8-3 (5-2 Big Ten).
  • Christian Hackenberg was 16-for-33 in the game with 217 yards two touchdowns and one interception, which came on a tipped pass. Despite the loss, Hackenberg recorded one of his better performances of the season.
  • Zach Zwinak rushed 35 times for 149 yards in the game, though he failed to find the end zone. Bill Belton was a pre-game scratch due to injuries and strep throat, according to O’Brien.
  • Allen Robinson quietly posted another solid statistical performance, catching eight balls for 106 yards including a 43-yard reception.
  • The tight ends did all the scoring for the Nittany Lions through the air — Adam Breneman and Jesse James pulled in both of Hackenberg’s touchdown passes.
  • Alex Butterworth punted 11 times in the game, downing six of those punts within Nebraska’s 20-yard line.
  • The Nittany Lions converted just 2-of-14 third down attempts, while the defense held Nebraska to just 3-of-17 on third downs.

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About the Author

Zach Berger

Zach Berger is a reporter and Onward State's Managing Editor Emeritus. You can find him at the Phyrst more nights than not. If he had to pick a last meal, Zach would go for a medium-rare New York strip steak with a side of garlic mashed potatoes and a cold BrewDog Punk IPA. You can reach him via e-mail at [email protected] or on Twitter at @theZachBerger.

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