STATE COLLEGE — Another flag. Another missed field goal. Another blocked kick. Penn State was looking for anything to extend senior day just a little longer.
Another chance that didn’t come.
This time the overtime kick from the visitors in red didn’t sail wide on the final play. The Nittany Lions couldn’t write the same script in this year’s home finale, losing 23-20 to Nebraska in overtime.
Just like last season against Wisconsin, Penn State took the lead in the fourth quarter before a late score forced the extra frame.
But Sam Ficken missed his 37-yard try on the first possession and though a false start wiped out his first try at a game-winner, Nebraska’s Pat Smith connected from 42.
“My heart sank,” senior guard John Urschel said after watching the kick end his final game at snowy Beaver Stadium with a loss.
“Walked across the field. Shook hands. They’ve got some really good football players and we respect a lot of their players.
“And that was that.”
There wasn’t much to say. Crippling breakdowns on special teams sabotaged a strong effort from the Lions defense, arguably its best of the season given the opponent and circumstance.
It didn’t have to come down to field goal attempts on a day plagued by wind gusts that tossed snow and scraps of trash from the stands onto the field.
Penn State missed an extra point in the first quarter and, most egregiously, surrendered a kickoff return touchdown for the second straight week.
“It’s not good,” Lions coach Bill O’Brien said of his special teams. “Kids were trying hard. We’ve just got to continue to work on it and fix it. We work hard on special teams and we’ll continue to work hard on special teams this coming week.”
Looking as despondent as he ever has after a loss, O’Brien couldn’t bring himself to criticize his players after facing them in a largely silent locker room.
But the Lions (6-5, 3-4 Big Ten) watched leads of 6-0, 13-7 and 20-17 evaporate quickly as the Cornhuskers punched back each time.
Ficken’s first extra-point try smashed off the right upright after Christian Hackenberg found Adam Breneman for the game’s opening score.
With Ron Kellogg replacing an injured Tommy Armstrong Jr. at quarterback, Nebraska (8-3, 5-2) answered on the ensuing drive for the lead.
When C.J. Olaniyan strip-sacked Kellogg early in the third quarter, recovering the loose ball at the Huskers 8-yard line, Hackenberg took it in himself for another score and another lead.
Kenny Bell responded with a 99-yard return for a score on the ensuing kickoff, just one week after Purdue’s Raheem Mostert went 100 yards to pay dirt. The athletic receiver hurdled Ficken at midfield before sprinting into the end zone.
“It was big,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. “We turned the football over a couple of times and we gave them a short field. Kenny stepped up and made a play. Kenny played really well today and that was a big play. That was pretty sweet when he got over the kicker.”
And yet, it felt like the Lions were going to pull it off, just like last season against the Badgers. The sense of deja vu struck in the fourth quarter when big tight end Jesse James took a pass down the same sideline and into the same end zone as last year’s finale for a go-ahead score.
Penn State would even catch a break after a terrific touchdown run by Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah (147 yards rushing) was negated by a controversial last-second personal foul against the Huskers behind the play. The Lions defense managed to stop the Huskers at the 1 on third-and-goal to turn an easy Nebraska lead into another trip to overtime.
Even when Smith lined up for the win, a flag gave the Lions life for one more snap. But no more.
“Everybody on this team wanted to get this win, especially for the senior class,” senior linebacker Glenn Carson said.
“There wasn’t a lot of talking in the locker room afterwards. A lot of hugs. A lot of pats on the back. I think that people played their hearts out today.”