10 things we learned from Nebraska's win over Penn State
Here are 10 of our biggest takeaways from Nebraska's 30-23 home win over Penn State on Saturday afternoon...
1. Nebraska finally finished
On the surface, Saturday’s game between Nebraska and Penn State as a matchup between two winless teams to see which was the most desperate for a victory.
For the Huskers, though, their win meant so much more.
This is a program that hadn’t won a football game since Nov. 23, 2019. That’s 357 days, nearly a full calendar year, without being on the right side of the scoreboard.
You could see the relief in the faces of every player who spoke during NU’s post-game Zoom interviews, and the social media videos and pictures from their locker room celebration looked like a team that was relishing every moment.
Just getting a win, no matter who nerve-racking it might have been down the stretch, could do wonders for Nebraska’s psyche as it enters the back half of this season. Especially given how many times it had lost games just like Saturday over the past few years.
It won’t mean anything if the Huskers can’t sustain this momentum next week in a very winnable home game against Illinois. For now, though, the significance on Saturday was perfectly encapsulated by head coach Scott Frost.
“The state needed it. The team needed it. I needed it.”
2. The defense saved the day
It’s hard to say a defense played well when it gave up over 500 yards of offense, but the only reason Nebraska won this game was because of its play on that side of the ball.
Yes, a makeshift Penn State offense that benched starting quarterback Sean Clifford in the second quarter racked up more yards on the Huskers than Ohio State did.
But the Nittany Lions needed a whopping 91 offensive plays to do it, and they only mustered 23 points despite all of that yardage and prime field position. That was the most snaps NU’s defense has played since UCLA (94) in 2012.
Of those 91 plays, 25 came on PSU’s last two drives of the game. The Huskers only allowed three points on those two possessions, including the final game-winning stand in the final seconds.
Not only that, but PSU only scored one touchdown in six trips inside the red zone.
3. McCaffrey had ups and downs in first start
The question everyone had been asking all week finally got an answer when Nebraska’s offense took the field for the first time on Saturday and redshirt freshman Luke McCaffrey earned his first start as a Husker.
Frost called it “one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made” to give McCaffrey the nod over junior Adrian Martinez. But it was the choice many had expected as NU searched for something to provide its offense a spark.
There were times where McCaffrey looked a future star, including an opening drive where he completed three of his first four passes and rushed for 24 yards, including the game’s first touchdown from one yard out.
Frost said McCaffrey “did a lot of good things and there’s a lot to build on” in his most extensive action yet, but added that there was plenty that needed to improve. In particular, the downfield passing game was virtually non-existent on Saturday.
All in all, McCaffrey led NU to the only stat that mattered – a win – and gained invaluable experience in the process. When he takes the field next week against Illinois, a lot of those first-start nerves will hopefully be behind him.
“Heck yeah, I was nervous,” McCaffrey said. “I probably got an hour of sleep last night.”
4. Wan’Dale got a Wan’Dale workload again
Nebraska knew it had to find a way to get arguably its best offensive weapon more involved in the offense, and did it ever feed Wan’Dale Robinson the rock early and often.
After touching the ball just 10 times through the first two games, the sophomore receiver ended up with five catches and 16 rushes for 72 total yards on Saturday.
That included four receptions and eight carries in the first half alone, and there was a drive in the second quarter where he rushed the ball on four consecutive plays.
Robinson hadn’t run the ball once against Ohio State and Northwestern, but he lined up in the backfield at running back on numerous snaps. There was an effort to make him a factor vs. Penn State, and it sure seemed like a good idea.
5. The mistakes are still happening
Yes, Nebraska did just enough to beat Penn State, but it also made numerous mental errors and self-inflicted mistakes that nearly cost it the game.
The Huskers only committed a season-low five penalties for 39 yards. Still, they also turned the ball over – a potentially crucial McCaffrey interception in the fourth quarter – and had to burn two timeouts on one drive in the second half because of personnel confusion.
There was also a McCaffrey pass that bounced off a wide-open Kade Warner’s chest in the back of the end zone in the first quarter. NU had to settle for a field goal on that drive as a result.
It doesn’t matter who is at quarterback or which players get more involved in the offense; if Nebraska continues to shoot itself in the foot at this rate, wins will continue to be very difficult to come by.
6. The second-half collapses are a major concern
In all three games this season, Nebraska has played its best football in the first and second quarters. When the Huskers come back out after halftime, though, something dramatically changes.
NU has now been out-scored 59-6 in the second half this season, including a 17-3 disadvantage to Penn State that nearly erased a 21-point first-half lead.
The Nittany Lions out-gained Nebraska 310-95 in total offense, had an 18-6 edge in first downs, and ran 50 plays to the Huskers’ 24 in the second half.
Whether it’s a matter of the Huskers not coming out with the same fire after halftime or opponents making better adjustments, there can’t continue to be that level of drop-off from one half to the next.
7. Special teams were vastly improved
One of Nebraska’s other deficiencies this season that probably hadn’t been talked about enough was how poorly it had been on special teams.
While Connor Culp has helped shore up the disaster that was last year’s place-kicking situation, the Huskers coverage and return units ranked near the bottom of the conference across the board.
Coming into Saturday, NU ranked 12th in the Big Ten in punting (35.8 yards per punt) and 13th in punt return average (-1.5 yards per return), and Culp already missed a 38-yarder at Northwestern.
But Nebraska was vastly improved in pretty much every special team against Penn State.
William Przystup averaged 40.5 yards on his four punts, but he pinned two inside the 20 and had a long of 53 yards. Culp was perfect on three of his field goals, and Cam Taylor-Britt took the only punt return 25 yards to set the offense up at midfield.
Nine of PSU’s 11 drives started inside its 30-yard line, including four that began inside the 20.
8. The offensive line was back intact, but far from perfect
Nebraska got some good news before the game when sophomore center Cam Jurgens returned to the lineup after missing the Northwestern game with turf toe.
His return allowed senior Matt Farniok to go back to right guard, and NU decided to stick with redshirt freshman Ethan Piper as the No. 1 left guard.
But there were still plenty of issues for the offensive line on Saturday. Not only did the unit struggle to get the ground game going and protect the pocket in the second half, Jurgens and McCaffrey seemed to have problems with the snaps all day.
Whether it was an issue of timing with McCaffrey or accuracy by Jurgens, the snaps looked far too much like they did early last season.
9. Welcome to the show, Zavier Betts
Zavier Betts’ first game inside Memorial Stadium as a Husker looked a lot like the last time he played there as a star wide receiver for 2019 state champion Bellevue West.
On Nebraska’s third offensive snap of the second quarter, Betts came around on a fly sweep and took a dump-off pass from McCaffrey 45 yards for a touchdown to push the lead to 17-3.
The former four-star recruit seemed to glide effortlessly as he scampered to the end zone, and he finished the day with two catches for 54 yards on two targets.
Frost said Betts was one of the players the staff wanted to create more opportunities for, and he showed how dynamic he could be in his chance.
10. What a weird home opener
Nebraska finally played its first home game of the 2020 season, but there wasn’t much that felt like a normal Husker football Saturday.
The downtown streets were quiet, and only a smattering of player family members was walking around Memorial Stadium even an hour before the game.
There was still a Tunnel Walk, pre-game fireworks, and thousands of cardboard cutouts of fans set up in the stands. They even released red balloons after NU’s first touchdown.
It’s the unfortunate new reality of the COVID-19 world we live in and something every team in the Big Ten is going through.
But that still didn’t make it feel any less strange.