As Penn State quarterback Will Levis crashed to the field at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln on fourth down, so did any hopes for a late-game comeback by the struggling Nittany Lions.
Nebraska’s pressure on Levis forced an incomplete pass that preserved a 30-23 win on Saturday to drop Penn State to 0-4 for the first time in 19 seasons.
Nebraska, meanwhile, earned its first win of the year.
“We have to get better,” Penn State offensive lineman Will Fries said. “There’s no other option. We have to come to practice with attention to detail and refine ourselves to get better. Things aren’t going the way we wanted, but it’s up to us to change our circumstances.”
After falling behind 27-6 at halftime, Penn State outscored Nebraska 17-3 in the second half. Penn State’s defense yielded a 27-yard field goal to Cornhuskers kicker Connor Culp, and the Nittany Lions’ offense outgained Nebraska, 310-95, in the final two quarters.
With 10:34 left in the fourth quarter and with Penn State chasing a 14-point deficit, Levis eluded pressure in the pocket to dodge a sack and launched a pass to tight end Pat Freiermuth that was good for a 74-yard gain. Two plays later, running back Devyn Ford scored on a 5-yard run that cut Nebraska’s lead to 30-23 with 9:20 remaining in the game.
Penn State’s defense harnessed the momentum on the ensuing Nebraska possession.
Defense end Jayson Oweh flushed Cornhuskers’ quarterback Luke McCaffrey from the pocket, forcing an errant throw. Linebacker Brandon Smith intercepted the pass to set his offense up with first-and-10 from the Nebraska 48.
The start was the first of McCaffrey’s two-year career as a Cornhusker.
Penn State’s offense went 10 plays on the following possession to set up first-and-10 from the Nebraska 11. After two incompletions on attempts to receivers Parker Washington and Jahan Dotson, Levis fired two more incompletions which gave the Cornhuskers the football on downs.
“We have to be more detailed in the passing game, and we have to be better in red-zone offense,” Franklin said. “Some of those balls, we just have to put them in a position where our guys have a chance to get it.”
Facing another opportunity to tie the score late in the fourth — following another three-and-out forced by the Penn State defense — the Nittany Lions put together an 11-play drive that started at Nebraska’s 31. The drive’s final four plays included two incompletions and two sacks to end Penn State’s comeback bid.
“Red-zone offense is about running the ball and being detailed in the passing game,” Franklin said. “All the (passing) windows are shrunk down, so it magnifies. It magnifies if you’re good enough in the red zone in passing offense, and it magnifies if you have some things to work on. We didn’t make enough plays. We didn’t put the ball in a position where our guy had a legitimate chance to get it where you’re going to get the (pass interference).”
Nebraska scored on its opening drive and built a 10-0 lead before Penn State kicker Jake Pinegar made a 33-yard field goal early in the second quarter. The Nittany Lions’ defense has now allowed opening-drive touchdowns to opponents in three consecutive contests.
Levis replaced Sean Clifford at quarterback in the second quarter after a strip-sack resulted in a 26-yard Nebraska fumble return for a touchdown. Levis finished the game 14-for-31 passing for 219 yards.
In the first quarter, Clifford threw his eighth interception of the season on an attempt to receiver Jahan Dotson. Clifford finished 5-of-8 for 37 yards with an interception.
Penn State freshman running back Keyvone Lee scored his first collegiate touchdown, and the first Nittany Lions touchdown of the game, on a 31-yard run in the third quarter.
The Nittany Lions’ backfield as a unit had its most productive game of the season. Ford rushed for a team-high 66 yards, Caziah Holmes tallied 50 yards. Levis ended with 61 yards. Lee rushed for 49 yards.
Freiermuth led the Nittany Lions with 113 yards receiving on seven receptions. Parker Washington added 70 yards on five catches.
Pinegar was 3-for-3 in field goal attempts with connections of 33, 40 and 27 yards.
Penn State outgained Nebraska 501-298 in total offense. The Nittany Lions had 30 first downs to Nebraska’s 17, and Penn State ran 91 plays to the Cornhuskers’ 60.
Penn State returns to Beaver Stadium next week to play Iowa.
“I think for us tomorrow, it’s getting right back to work,” Fries said. “Learning from the film and moving onto the next game.”