If I would have told you a month ago that Nebraska would beat Penn State 30-23, you would have been ecstatic.
If I would have told you a few days ago that the Huskers would win this game by that score, you’d be happy.
So let’s take a big deep breath over Nebraska’s first victory of the season. Nebraska looked like the team they want to be in the first half, but once again, looked like the team they’ve been the last few years in the second half. That’s still progress, but it also points out there’s still a lot to work on. The Huskers have been a great first half team this season: they were tied with Ohio State late in the second quarter, and held halftime leads the last two weeks. The big issue: Nebraska has only scored two field goals in the second half all season.
This game turned on Penn State’s quarterback change. Sean Clifford was so good last season, but has really struggled the last two weeks. Enter Will Levis, who certainly gave Penn State a spark on the ground; he nearly was Penn State’s leading rusher until being sacked at the end of the game. Levis wasn’t very good throwing the ball, completing just 14 of 31 passes, but good enough to put a scare into Nebraska.
If there’s a stat Husker fans can point to with pride, it’s the Blackshirts performance inside the ten yard line. Penn State ran 12 plays in “goal-to-go” situations, only gaining positive yards on two plays. Six times, the Blackshirts held them to no gain, and Penn State lost yards four times. That’s pretty stout defense with the game on the line.
So it’s on to this week’s report card, and as always, your feedback is welcome in the comments.
QB: Luke McCaffrey took over as the starting quarterback and played the entire game. First half McCaffrey was pretty good, completing 10 of 15 passes for 132 yards and a touchdown. He also rushed for 22 yards on five carries and another score. I walked away from the game thinking second half McCaffrey wasn’t so good, but he still gained 45 yards on eight carries. Nebraska only threw the ball six times in the second half, and I think that reflects the coaching staff’s lack of comfort with NU’s receivers with the game on the line. And to me, that’s the biggest problem with Nebraska’s offense right now, not the quarterback. Grade: B-
I-Back: Dedrick Mills carried the ball three times on the opening drive and wasn’t seen in the game after that. At halftime, Mills was observed limping out of the locker room and after the game, Frost said that Mills was dinged up. It’s pretty clear that Frost and Lubick also don’t trust the other backs, as Marvin Scott and Ronald Thompkins only carried the ball six times in the game. That’s a problem. Grade: D-
Wan’Dale: Last year, I started breaking out Nebraska’s most versatile player, and in this game, Wan’Dale Robinson shifted back to running back after Mills left the game. Robinson ran the ball strong at times, but the 160 pound slasher is not a runner who can handle an steady diet of carries. In this game, Robinson carried the ball 16 times, but seven of those rushes went for two or fewer yards. In an ideal game, I think you’d prefer to see Robinson carry the ball five to seven times to change things up. Grade: B
Wide Receivers: Finally, Nebraska was able to run a jet sweep with Melvin Gordon-like success! (OK, technically it wasn’t a jet sweep since it was actually a forward pass...but still...) I think the key takeaway is that Nebraska now has the receivers to successfully run plays like this moving forward, and that’s something that hasn’t been the case the last five years or so. Problem is that these young receivers still have a limited grasp of the offense, and make mistakes. Case in point: Alante Brown nearly tackling McCaffrey shifting into the backfield. This makes for a tough choice: do you put the most talented players out there and risk the screwups, or do you put the most consistent players out there and risk not making plays? That’s an oversimplification of the problem, but let’s also remember that Nebraska’s first three opponents are likely much better than the remaining four opponents. This is one of those things that hopefully will shift in the coming weeks. This week, though... we didn’t get nearly the production out of receivers that we should have. Grade: C
Offensive Line: My first take was that the offensive line struggled to block Penn State in this game, but then I remembered that the Nittany Lions have been good against the run this season, ranking fourth in the Big Ten in rush defense. And Nebraska’s 146 yards on the ground is better than the 124 yards per game average Penn State gave up the first three games. In that light, perhaps this wasn’t so bad. Grade: C+
Defensive Line: The offensive issues that kept the defense on the field for 12 minutes in the third quarter took it’s toll on the defense, which played great in the first half and in the red zone in the second half. (Not to mention the goonery by Penn State guard CJ Thorpe; looks like personal fouls have been part of his game dating back to high school.) We’ll give special credit to Ben Stille for his almost-sack of Will Levis to finally seal the victory. Grade: B+
Linebackers: A whale of a game for just about everyone. Will Honas with 13 tackles and Collin Miller with 10, plus Luke Reimer with a key sack. JoJo Domann with 12 tackles, including two tackles-for-loss in the red zone. Yeah, they wore down, but in the end, they made the plays necessary to get the win. Grade: A-
Secondary: Deonatai Williams may have only had three tackles, but his second quarter sack and resulting scoop-and-score gave Nebraska the margin of victory. Likewise Cam Taylor-Britt took on the task of shutting down future NFL-er Jahan Dotson, who had his worst game of the season. Add in a 55 yard interception return that set up a field goal, and you’ve got a dominant performance. Marquel Dismuke also added 15 tackles to lead the Blackshirts. Grade: A
Overall: B At half time, this grade would have been MUCH higher. Still, it’s an upset win over a preseason Top Ten team. Most importantly, when Nebraska faced crunch time, they didn’t completely fold; they made the plays to WIN THE DAMN GAME.
How would you grade the Huskers 30-23 victory over Penn State?
This poll is closed
A - A huge victory!
B - Big win, but would have preferred a better second half performance.
C - Could have preferred to see the game not come down to the last minute again. First half was awesome; the second, not so much.
D - Don’t care about the win; the Huskers played crappy for much of the second half.
Elsewhere in College Football
Minnesota F Gophers clearly have misplaced many of their oars. Evidence is mounting that perhaps their big victories against Nebraska, Penn State and Auburn last season may have been a mirage.
Michigan 0 It’s sure fun to laugh at Jim Harbaugh, but I’m not sure it’s all Harbaugh’s fault. Harbaugh was a winner with Stanford and the 49ers. Like with Nebraska in recent years, I suspect there are institutional issues at play here.
COVID - No Grade. After knocking out over a dozen games this weekend, everyone needs to worry how much longer we’ll be able to play football in this pandemic. Enjoy the games we have, folks. Wear a mask, practice social distancing and stay healthy until science brings us a solution.