#19 Nebraska 17
#12 Penn State 14

Nov. 12, 2011 • Beaver Stadium, University Park, Pennsylvania

1 2 3 4 T
Nebraska 3 7 7 0 17
Penn State 0 0 7 7 14

Defense carries NU in game Pelini was hesitant to play

The Nebraska and Penn State football teams kneel at midfield to pray together before the game at Beaver Stadium. The game was the first played by Penn State in the midst of the sex-abuse scandal that led to coach Joe Paterno’s firing. REBECCA S. GRATZ/THE WORLD-HERALD

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Bo Pelini wasn’t sure this game should be played.

The Nebraska coach talked to Athletic Director Tom Osborne early in the week about No. 12 Penn State canceling its Saturday contest with the No. 19 Huskers in the midst of the sex-abuse scandal that led to coach Joe Paterno’s firing.

“Here I am telling my football team to ignore what’s going on because we have a game to play — we have to focus on what we’re doing — but my No. 1 job is to educate and to talk to them about it,” he said after Nebraska’s 17-14 win Saturday afternoon.

NU didn’t want to forfeit, but Pelini thought playing the game might send the wrong message.

“Young kids were hurt,” he said. “That’s a crime in itself.”

Osborne turned to PSU’s acting athletic director.

“Are you guys sure you want to play this?” Osborne asked. The answer: Yes.

“They thought it was an opportunity to show the world they were good people,” Osborne said Saturday in an interview with The World-Herald.

Said Pelini: “I do what I’m told. It was to play.”

Nebraska and Penn State first hugged and prayed together — “a show of solidarity was something that was probably pretty sorely needed,” Pelini said — then played a dramatic, defensive game that seemingly didn’t want to end. One that left players exhausted as time ran out on the Nittany Lions’ furious comeback effort.

“It was survival,” said defensive end Eric Martin, who knelt on the grass near Penn State’s sideline, a sea of dark jerseys moving around him. “I was gassed. It was just long. A battle. Penn State — they came out and fought.”

The sun threw shadows on the field as 107,903 fans at Beaver Stadium offered a warm standing ovation to both teams, who hugged and prayed again afterward.

As the crowd shifted into a chant of “We are — Penn State!” hundreds of media members — drawn here to cover the scandal — swarmed the field looking for reaction. Most Huskers wearily walked off, having survived one of their most physical games in recent memory.

“Hard-fought,” defensive coordinator Carl Pelini said. “It’s the way it should have been. Two physical teams. Great college football game.”

And linebacker Will Compton, who led all Huskers with 13 tackles: “They came to play. We came to play. It was a war.”

Nebraska — 8-2 overall and 4-2 in the Big Ten — forged a 17-0 third-quarter lead, then held on as Penn State (8-2, 5-1) made a late, bold march with its running game and quarterback Matt McGloin. With 82- and 55-yard touchdown drives, the Lions crept within three, then had two chances in the last five minutes to tie or win the game.

“The momentum shifted there late in the second half,” NU defensive line coach John Papuchis said. “That’s not always easy to overcome.”

But the Blackshirts did. First, linebacker Lavonte David stoned PSU running back Silas Redd on a fourth-and-1 toss play. After the Nittany Lions then stopped NU running back Rex Burkhead just short on fourth down, the Huskers snuffed out a few desperate throws from McGloin, who completed just two of his final five passes and 16 of 34 overall.

The late stands helped atone for a Husker offense that went punchless on its last four possessions of the game, gaining just 52 yards.

Before that, quarterback Taylor Martinez (199 total yards) and Burkhead (121 yards) led an 80-yard touchdown drive at the end of the second quarter and a 52-yard march early in the third after defensive end Cameron Meredith forced a McGloin fumble.

On both drives, Burkhead lined up at quarterback, including a new under-the-center formation. On the Huskers’ first touchdown, he pitched the ball back to Ameer Abdullah for a 2-yard score. Martinez pitched to Burkhead on a 14-yard option for the second score.

The under-center formation came back to bite offensive coordinator Tim Beck in the fourth quarter, when Burkhead — trying to run a fullback trap to Tyler Legate — got hit and fumbled the exchange. It was one of several plays in which Penn State’s long, athletic defensive line knifed past NU’s offensive line.

“They were good,” said junior left guard Seung Hoon Choi, subbing for an ill Andrew Rodriguez.

But offensive tackle Yoshi Hardrick said Nebraska gave as good as it got. The final statistics reflect it. NU gained 331 total yards; PSU had 375. The Lions won the time of possession battle by two minutes. Both teams punted at least seven times. Each defense created a turnover that led to a touchdown.

Penn State’s fans seemed to acknowledge this reality, treating Husker players better, right guard Spencer Long said, than they ever have been. Long and other players lingered for postgame interviews or mingled with family, who lined the metal railing around NU’s locker room. Just outside the stadium, not even 100 yards away, was a team of horses adorned with riot shields, awaiting a potential fan backlash that never occurred.

Maybe the opening prayer had something to do with it. Or the blue ribbons worn by fans for abuse awareness. Or the style of the contest itself.

Pelini thought so, especially of the prayer, which sent a statement, he said, that the ongoing investigation at Penn State is “bigger than football” and “bigger than the game” Nebraska won.

“We as a society got to fight together tooth and nail to make sure things like that don’t happen,” Pelini said.

Hardrick, hugging fans and wearing a wide-but-weary smile afterward, put a different spin on it.

“A lot of kids wonder what manhood is,” he said. “We just showed them what manhood was.”


More coverage

World-Herald post-game coverage (PDF)

Box score (PDF)

Game stats

Opp NU
Penalties-Yards 6-45
Rush yards 166 188
Rush attempts 43 48
Yards per carry 3.9 3.9
Pass yards 209 143
Comp.-Att.-Int. 17-35-0 13-27-0
Yards/Att. 6.0 5.3
Yards/Comp. 12.3 11.0
Fumbles 1 1

Series history

Nebraska is 9-8 all-time against Penn State.

See all games »

2011 season (9-4)

Chattanooga Sept. 3
Fresno State Sept. 10
Washington Sept. 17
Wyoming Sept. 24
Wisconsin Oct. 1
Ohio State Oct. 8
Minnesota Oct. 22
Michigan State Oct. 29
Northwestern Nov. 5
Penn State Nov. 12
Michigan Nov. 19
Iowa Nov. 25
South Carolina Jan. 2

This day in history

Nebraska has played 21 games on Nov. 12. See them all »

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