On Saturday afternoon, the Penn State Nittany Lions and the Nebraska Cornhuskers engaged in a contest of American football at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Nebraska. The Huskers emerged victorious, 30-23. I have several thoughts, which are set forth randomly below:
1. I don’t even know what to say.
2. Long time readers know that Nebraska week is special for me. My first Nebraska game was the moment the entire Penn State community wrapped itself around the freshman class of 2002.
3. These two heavyweights colliding hhave given us all memorable moments over the years. Like this one –
4. Or this one -
5. And even this one –
6. (We don’t speak about that last one)
7. (It was a touchdown)
8. Saturday’s game was in a decidedly different circumstance. Two winless teams trying to get their world’s right.
9. We’re still the ones waiting to do that.
10. Honestly, I’m at a total loss for words as to how to describe what happened this past weekend. It’s one thing to get smacked around by Maryland for a week because you let your guard down, fall deep in a hole and continue to dig yourself deeper when you’re trying to climb out. That happens. See Iowa 55, Ohio State 24.
11. It’s another to have that happen twice in a season, let alone two weeks in a row. Once is an outlier, twice is a habit.
12. No one can sugarcoat this, either. What happened against Nebraska is a serious concern. There are a million reasons why this season is unlike any other – minimal team meetings, few (if any) in-person gatherings, no fans, odd travel schedules, no warmup games, wholesale shift in strategy, and loss of All-America caliber players.
13. The problem, though, is that the vast majority of those issues exist in every other program playing FBS football this season. The losses of Micah Parsons and Journey Brown are devastating, but linebacker and running back are the deepest positions Penn State has and among the most impressive in the country.
14. Even with losing Noah Cain left us with…three four-star tailbacks.
15. We’ve spoken the last several years often about complementary football, where the offense and defense feed off of each other. The first time we saw any semblance of that this year was in the second half against Nebraska.
16. Unfortunately, they were already down 27-6.
17. Asking your defense to pitch a shutout in the second half is a tall ask. That the defense was able to do so, more or less, is impressive. Those added 3 points didn’t make any difference in the outcome.
18. They also played well from drive-to-drive. Nebraska ran 24 meaningful plays in the second half (plus one at the end of the game) over 5 possessions. Ten of those plays happened on one field goal drive. Otherwise, the Huskers averaged 3.5 plays per drive in the second half.
19. Those are the kinds of numbers that make it possible for an offense to claw its way back into a game that looks entirely out of reach at the half. That’s exactly the kind of performance we expected for the defense coming into the season, so it’s confusing as to why the first half looked like a completely different team.
20. And when I say completely different, I mean it. Nebraska not only ran extended drives, they also were able to get big chunk plays out of their offense, catching the defense out of position and putting points on the board.
21. I remember a team that used to look like that…
22. And magically, that team (sort of) reappeared in the second half!
23. There’s a lot to pick apart from Sean Clifford. I don’t think he’s played particularly well this season, and that first quarter interception is Exhibit A. Open play, easy yards, thrown nowhere near the receiver and resulted in a significant momentum swing.
24. I know the fumble later seemed to be the final straw for most people, but that was a much more understandable turnover. He got hit and fumbled – that happens. The interception was far more egregious.
25. Clifford’s struggling this much this year was not remotely expected. No one was demanding or expecting a Heisman candidate, although that would’ve been nice. But he’s a tough kid with good wheels and a solid arm. He’s performed well previously, and, frankly, he’s dominated teams like this. This Nebraska team isn’t exactly the blackshirts from the mid-90s.
26. It was time to make a move to Will Levis when it happened. We all know that. Even so, it’s still not easy to watch a kid lose his job and have to stand on the sidelines after putting in so much time and effort. Credit Sean for putting on a good face and keeping himself involved. That’s what good teammates do.
27. Levis wasn’t perfect, but he acquitted himself relatively well. He did everything we expected him to do and a little more – that escape and strike to Pat Freiermuth downfield was not part of the skillset we saw last year when he subbed in for an injured Sean Clifford against Rutgers.
28. Beyond any specific play, the offense seemed to move quicker under Levis. That could be for any number of reasons, but the biggest criticisms I’ve had from the last several weeks center on pace and urgency. Specifically, there was none.
29. The second half was a much better feeling, although I admittedly don’t understand the compulsion to call so many pass plays in the red zone on the final two possessions. More than that, on the second to last possession, at 1st and 10 from the Nebraska 11 yard line, we threw fades on consecutive passes.
30. Those are wasted downs. I’m not saying pull the play out of the playbook, but using a quarterback with spotty, unproven touch to throw to a freshman receiver (Parker Washington) and a 5’11 budding star (Jahan Dotson) is incomprehensible.
31. Also, 6’5 Pat Freiermuth is right there.
32. More incomprehensible – the 4th down pass that was broken up wouldn’t have even made it to the sticks for a first down.
33. So, again I ask…what exactly is Penn State doing?
34. The thing is, I’m not sure they know either, which is precisely why I still have significant concerns.
35. Well, the good news is that we get Iowa this week, and they never make bad seasons worse for the Nittany Lions, right?
36. I mean, it’d be hard to be worse than that.
37. We are…