Until last month, it was the largest crowd to fill Beaver Stadium. Fifteen years ago, Penn State hosted No. 8 Nebraska under the lights and made the nation take notice with a 40-7 romp of the Cornhuskers.
That was the last time Penn State beat Nebraska. And for the Huskers, it was the start of a long slide down from the top of the college football mountain.
“When I think of Nebraska, I think growing up, I look at Nebraska in a lot of ways, a lot of similarities to a Penn State,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “Tremendous history, tremendous tradition and pride. One of those types of programs that you view that way.”
But when the two teams meet on Saturday after a three-season hiatus, they will be programs headed in opposite directions. While the Lions hunt for their second straight double-digit win season and New Year’s Six bowl game, the Huskers are likely staying home for the holidays — likely searching for a new head coach in the meantime.
Entering Happy Valley at 4-6 and as a stunning 26-point underdog, Nebraska pull out the upset to keep its bowl hopes alive.
“We’ve got ourselves a situation where he have a big, big job ahead and absolutely doing everything we can to prepare our team for the next game,” said Mike Riley, who will finish out the season before new athletic director Bill Moos makes a decision on his future. “The players need our support and coaching with every bit of passion and preparation that we can have. That’s where we have to go.”
Riley’s players looked to have thrown in the towel last week as the Huskers were hammered 54-21 at Minnesota, a game in which they surrendered 409 rushing yards — including 183 to quarterback Demry Croft.
That could spell good news for the Lions, who will look to get Trace McSorley on the move to similar effect.
“When you are seeing a team like last week that is a zone-read type team, getting beat on different pressures can be difficult at times,” Riley said. “It is something I think strategically we are looking at some things that we know are missing in the factor of winning games.”
THREE AND OUT
Lee ready to return
Nebraska’s loss to the Golden Gophers was compounded by the fact that starting quarterback Tanner Lee was pulled midway through the game with concerns of a concussion.
Though his status for Saturday was up in the air at the start of the week, Lee was able to return to practice and Riley said Friday he will start against the Lions.
A day earlier, however, Riley stopped short of saying that Lee would play the whole way if cleared.
Lee’s backup is Patrick O’Brien, who finished out the Minnesota game and did plenty of throwing with the Huskers facing a big deficit.
“I’ve been impressed,” Riley said of O’Brien. “I was impressed with how he went into the game. For the first two days this week, he took all the reps, did very well. Very sharp. And then had a split (with Lee) in the last couple days.”
A transfer from Tulane, Lee was expected to give the Huskers a big boost this season as they transitioned from their old option-heavy scheme. But while he has flashed a big arm, he also has thrown a Big Ten-worst 13 interceptions.
As for Penn State’s injury situation, the Lions have had both left tackle Ryan Bates and Ryan Buchholz back at practice this week, though their availability for Saturday remains unknown.
“Hopefully we’ll get some guys back from injuries, which would be helpful,” Franklin said.
The Lions have badly missed both players, who went down against Ohio State at the end of October and missed all of the last two games.
Speaking on his weekly radio show on Thursday, Franklin said he was confident that the offensive line in particular would have a better showing.
“I think you’re going to see our offensive line take a step this week,” Franklin said. “I’m confident they got the message. They’re prideful guys, and I think you’re going to see progress.”
Penn State will honor 23 players before the game for senior day ceremonies. No scholarship juniors are on the list.
Running out of the tunnel for the last time will be Marcus Allen, Troy Apke, Brendan Brosnan, Saeed Blacknall, Jason Cabinda, Christian Campbell, Tyrell Chavis, Curtis Cothran, Parker Cothren, Desi Davis, Tyler Davis, Billy Fessler, Mike Gesicki, Grant Haley, DaeSean Hamilton, Cody Hodgens, Brendan Mahon, Josh McPhearson, Andrew Nelson, Tom Pancoast, Daniel Pasquariello, Brandon Smith and Mitchell Vallone.
“These guys came at a time that was a challenging time for all of us at Penn State,” Franklin said. “These guys believed in Penn State. They believed in this community. They believed in our professors and our faculty and the deans, the administration. They believed in our coaching staff. They believed in their teammates and felt like we could do something special here.
“Those guys should be very proud.”