LINCOLN — When Penn State snapped the football 10 yards away from the end zone on a second-quarter play, Nebraska cornerback Ciante Evans was raising his hands above his head and shouting toward one of his teammates.
The football didn't go to Evans' side of the field, but there were plenty of other confused Huskers scrambling in that moment. And the 10-yard touchdown pass, which put Penn State up 17-6, wasn't the only time that members of the Nebraska defense were out of position or late to react against the efficient and fast-paced offensive attack.
And that's why NU's defensive coaching staff took responsibility within the locker room for the 20-6 halftime deficit, vowing to make quicker and simpler play calls in the second half. The strategic adjustment helped change the momentum in Saturday's 32-23 win over the Nittany Lions.
“The hardest part in the first half was getting the call on the field,” senior defensive end Cameron Meredith said. “They started running a lot of hurry-up, and we were really flustered by it because we were trying to get a call.”
Nebraska knew the Nittany Lions would operate without a huddle at some point Saturday. It wasn't supposed to be that often, though.
Film study doesn't always reveal an offense's tempo or its sudden increase in pace, but defensive coordinator John Papuchis said tapes showed PSU opponents occasionally wouldn't be lined up at the snap — a sign that the Nittany Lions were moving quicker than expected. Papuchis said other coaches told NU's staff to be ready for it, too.
Yet Penn State burned Nebraska with a quick snap often in the first half.
It was most evident on quarterback Matt McGloin's 10-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jesse James late in the second quarter — and during the sequence of plays leading up to that score.
The Huskers used all three of their first-half timeouts on defense, the third and final one called with 3:34 left before halftime because they had 12 players on the field. Two plays later, they were called offside because a two-player substitution took too much time and the guys leaving the field didn't reach the sideline before McGloin snapped the football.
After a 4-yard run, McGloin found James wide open in the flat, and the freshman rumbled in untouched.
“Half were playing one defense; half were playing another,” Papuchis said.
Coach Bo Pelini said it was his fault.
“I saw what they were going to come out in and I made a bad call, and that put our guys in a bad situation,” Pelini said.
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Nebraska's defense is often at its best when it's mixing up pass coverage schemes and varying blitz packages, never letting an opponent get comfortable. That was the game plan Saturday, anyway.
Penn State was moving too fast, though. The Nittany Lions mixed up their formations and broke a few tendencies.
On the game's fourth play, the Nittany Lions split two tight ends out wide with two receivers lined up in slot positions, leaving one 232-pounder in the backfield. Nebraska was prepared for that formation, a tweaked four-receiver set.
But NU initially expected a screen or a draw. A pre-snap adjustment wasn't relayed in time. And Zach Zwinak darted right up the middle for a 50-yard touchdown to put Penn State up 7-0 not even two minutes into the game.
“You don't want the tempo to force you into being vanilla, but you don't want to be too cute, to where it leads to big plays,” Papuchis said. “It's a fine line.”
The Huskers were on the wrong side of that line in the first half. And they were frustrated because of it.
Down 20-6, Nebraska had allowed 5.3 yards per carry and 16 yards per completion through two quarters. Had Alonzo Whaley not forced a fumble inside the red zone (recovered by Will Compton), the deficit would have likely been worse.
Tempers flared a bit after mistakes. TV cameras caught safety Daimion Stafford involved in what appeared to be a heated exchange with Pelini. Evans said the message at halftime was simply to “calm down.”
Controlling their emotions helped the Huskers find a rhythm Saturday, according to Papuchis.
“One thing I talked to our guys (about) after the game — both us as coaches and them as players — is when things get chaotic, we've got to stay even-keel,” Papuchis said. “I think we learned that lesson.”
Penn State managed just 3.5 yards per run after halftime. McGloin, who started 10 for 17, completed just 8 of his final 20 pass attempts for 80 yards.
Stafford's third-quarter interception set up Imani Cross' second touchdown, tying the game at 20.
Penn State answered with a field goal, but once again, the Huskers found a way to stiffen with the game on the line. They limited three of the Nittany Lions' last four drives to fewer than five plays. The other PSU possession went inside the NU 5-yard line, but David Santos knocked the football out of Matt Lehman's hands as the tight end attempted to stretch across the goal line.
Of the last 13 drives that have started in the fourth quarter against Nebraska's defense, none have resulted in points for the opposition. Fewer than 4 yards per play. Two interceptions, a fumble, a safety and a missed field goal.
Penn State had three possessions in the final five minutes Saturday and never recorded a first down.
“Our guys are great at making adjustments,” Papuchis said. “But we have to be better as coaches.”
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