What They Deserved: Nebraska 23, Penn State 20 (OT)

Justin K. Aller

One last time, this Penn State team walked off the field at Beaver Stadium. They did not do so as champions. But hey, that's okay, too.

I'll try and sum it up:

This game could have been so much better, and it could have been so much worse; we can neither truly complain nor wholeheartedly celebrate. Just as last year's splendid absolution was the finale that befit that glorious team, so too was this afternoon's the perfect way to send out the Seniors of 2013, as a microcosm of their final year in the Blue and White.

Today's game, like this entire season, was an exercise in frustration, pockmarked with enough outright jubilation to just about make it all worth it, an experience that both built character and shouldn't be traded for the world.

These Lions were again sloppy; they made inexcusable mistakes and failed to capitalize on Nebraska's own. They were incapable of seizing the plethora of opportunities to take control that were staring them in the face. They were, at times, their own worst enemies.

And yet, this Penn State team was resilient. It was tough. It refused to yield and pack it in and give up despite a litany of events that could've early and decisively turned the tilt in Nebraska's favor. It fought back, and no matter what the outcome ended up being, everyone on this team could have walked off the field at Beaver Stadium for the final time in 2013 with their heads held high.

Today we saw the intertwining of painfully familiar and gloriously unpredictable, and of course this game went in to overtime--because at this rate it's the rare home game that doesn't--of course this Senior Day was a reflection, good and bad, of what this game and what this season could have been, should have been, and ultimately was.

What would Senior Day be without the backbreaking special teams miscues that have checkered this season, given the motley crew of freshmen and walkons on that unit? (Although, to be fair, it's tough to blame Butterworth's botch of the punt snap and Ficken's UVA flashback on inexperience.) What would Senior Day be without a few freshman mistakes by the yes-he's-still-18 year old quarterback, completing less than half his passes, throwing an interception, and missing a wide open Allen Robinson on a bomb down the middle of the field? What would Senior Day be without a few dropped passes, and missed tackles, and third down struggles, and blown coverages and puzzling coaching decisions and a few mild heart attacks and aneurysms induced in the hearts and brains of Penn Staters everywhere?

And yet...

What would Senior Day be without the perseverance of Zach Zwinak, benched and relegated to mop up duty and so maligned and so seemingly unable to hold on to the damn football coming through with a gutsy, tough performance on a frozen, frigid afternoon, with usurping starter Bill Belton out of commission? What would Senior Day be without Malcolm Willis, who's had trouble this season holding his starting job against a challenge from only walk-ons, making the biggest play of his Penn State career, forcing a fumble with Ameer Abdullah just inches from the goal line? What would Senior Day be without a freshman stepping up, as Brandon Bell, who barely saw the field before Ben Kline's injury, came up big as the best linebacker on the field in the fourth quarter? What would Senior Day be without the closest thing we've had to a literal passing of the torch, with Christian Hackenberg scrambling to the right corner of the end zone just as Matt McGloin did a year ago, though of course he's far too polished and comes with too impressive a pedigree to flail in, then do a discount double-check.

Last year, the extra football was fitting for a team that wasn't sure if they'd play any. Today, it was appropriate for a team that's occasionally needed more than 60 minutes to decide just how badly it wants to win, but wants us all to have some fun along the way.

For every dropped pass, there was a blitz that hit home, or Zwinak plowing through a Cornhusker defender. For every special teams miscue, there was a game-changing turnover, or a three and out forced. In a whirling blizzard, perhaps the offensive successes, on both sides, were the aberrations. But for every time Penn State had the momentum there was the inevitable devastation, and yet for every time Nebraska threatened to run away with it there was the equal and opposite reaction.

Penn State lost because somebody had to, and because given just how many twists and turns this game took, it was a 50/50 chance that the last bell would toll for us. Penn State lost because it would be a rare and special team that could overcome the sheer number and size of the mistakes this one makes and the fact that these guys came so damn close tells you a little something about the heart and ability, occasionally peeking through, of these kids, of this squad. Penn State lost because that's what the narrative demanded, but that's how it goes sometimes, and who are we, of all fans, to argue with that?

There will be football next Saturday, three more hours to relish before the insufferably long offseason. We almost certainly won't win, and probably won't come this close, and either way, it won't mean as much as this one did, but it's still Penn State football, and it's what we have. I'll see you there.

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