Nittany Lions win wild one against Cornhuskers on Senior Day, 56-44

Penn State running back Saquon Barkley runs for a touchdown ahead of Nebraska defenders during an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017, in State College, Pa. (Abby Drey/Centre Daily Times via AP)

UNIVERSITY PARK — A wild and soggy senior day saw Penn State and Nebraska play a crazy game that set home scoring records, then the Nittany Lions’ best player gave fans some good news afterward.

Junior running back Saquon Barkley did not say that he will return for his senior season. He did, however, confirm that he will play in PSU’s bowl game, ending speculation that he would skip it so he doesn’t get hurt before he likely turns pro early.

“I will play in the bowl game,” Barkley declared (see Page B? for more on his decision).

The No. 10 Lions throttled struggling Nebraska in the first half, building a 32-point lead, but the Huskers showed some character trying to fight back late. Nebraska scored three touchdowns in the final 6:32, but PSU still won comfortably, 56-44, before 106,722 fans who sat through pouring rain much of the day.

It was the highest-scoring game in Beaver Stadium history, and the 44 points is the most PSU has ever allowed at home in a victory. It also capped the second straight season the Lions went undefeated at home.

“First half was probably the best first half of football we’ve played, if you look at production and how efficient we were,” quarterback Trace McSorley said after the Lions built a 42-10 lead.

Nebraska, with a defense that has been torched by just about everyone this season, got destroyed by Penn State’s offense in the first half. The Lions (9-2, 6-2 Big Ten) rolled up 439 yards of offense in the first half alone — to just 77 for the Huskers — and scored a TD on five consecutive drives for the big lead.

Nebraska (4-7, 3-5) actually had a 10-7 lead because of a couple of PSU special teams mistakes, then the Lions clobbered the Huskers the rest of the half with 35 unanswered points.

“We wanted to focus on having confidence, bringing swagger and getting back to who we are,” said Barkley, who broke free for a 65-yard touchdown run on Penn State’s third play from scrimmage.

Barkley finished with 158 yards rushing on 17 carries and caught a team-high six passes for 66 yards. He’s not the Heisman Trophy frontrunner any longer, but he did have a big game in what was almost certainly his Beaver Stadium finale.

McSorley had a big day, as well, completing 24-of-36 passes for 325 yards and three TDs, despite playing in rain most of the game.

“It’s not too big a deal,” McSorley said of passing in the rain. “They do a good job of keeping balls dry and do some things to keep your hands dry. There wasn’t any time when the ball felt super slippery.”

Penn State looked unstoppable, and Nebraska looked as bad as it gets on both sides of the ball in the first half.

The second half was a different story.

The Huskers scored 34 points and piled up 389 yards, while the Lions managed only 14 more points.

“The second half obviously just kind of leaves a bad taste in your mouth on offense and defense,” PSU coach James Franklin said. “I don’t think we played up to our standards there.”

There were, however, some extenuating circumstances in the way the second half played out.

Penn State was leading 56-24 with 10:13 remaining, then started playing a lot of backups on defense. Nebraska had a 75-yard TD drive and scored with 6:32 left, then a quick 97-yard drive against the Lions’ second-team defense.

The Huskers recovered an onside kick with 1:20 to go and found the end zone again on the game’s final play.

Franklin lamented about how it can be tough to know when to insert backups as opposed to continuing to play starters with a big lead. He also was asked if his team took its foot off the gas late.

“I’m not sure,” Franklin said. “We obviously didn’t play as well coming out of the half on offense or defense. And then we made some substitutions and continued to still not play as well as we should have played.”

It was a comfortable win, though, and one that probably would have been even more lopsided had PSU continued to play its starters.

“I’m fighting the tendency to not be happy and enjoy wins,” Franklin said. “There’s too many miserable coaches around the country that aren’t happy and enjoy wins.”

Nebraska quarterback Tanner Lee, who was in concussion protocol all week before getting cleared to play Friday, had a huge second half and finished with big numbers. He was 26-of-41 for 399 yards and three TDs.

“We just had a terrible start to the game, and Penn State was really good,” Nebraska coach Mike Riley said before later adding, “The only thing I can say is I appreciated our team in the second half.”

PSU linebacker Brandon Smith, who had 13 tackles, gave the Huskers a lot of credit for how they played in the second half.

“I think they showed a lot of character,” Smith said. “Despite the score being pretty lopsided going into half, they never gave up and they never quit. Right up until the end they were mad that they couldn’t kick the extra point after that last touchdown. Those guys have pride, and they’re a great program with a lot of tradition. Those guys never gave up, and that’s a credit to them.”

Some of the Lions’ seniors made sure to soak in their last game at Beaver Stadium. Many talked about how there were a lot of emotions before the game, with numerous people tearing up, including Franklin.

“Last home game, it was really special,” receiver DaeSean Hamilton said. “It really didn’t hit me, but it was obviously very emotional at the beginning of the game seeing all the seniors line up out there, seeing Coach Franklin shed a tear. It really started to sink in that, yeah, this is my last game at home.”

Tight end Mike Gesicki said he “started noticing stuff in the stadium I never even noticed before” while warming up.

“I’m standing there during pregame looking up, just trying to take everything in,” Gesicki said. “That stadium is one of the best venues in all of sports. Not in college football, but in all of sports. So to be able to play here the last four years has been an absolute honor.”

SCORING SUMMARY

FIRST QUARTER

Penn State 7, Nebraska 0

Penn State 7, Nebraska 3

Nebraska 10, Penn State 7

Penn State 14, Nebraska 10

SECOND QUARTER

Penn State 21, Nebraska 10:

Penn State 28, Nebraska 10:

Penn State 35, Nebraska 10: The Lions scored a TD on their fourth consecutive drive, going 65 yards, mostly through the air, and facing only one third down (a third-and-1). Barkley finished it off on an 8-yard TD run with 4:36 to go in the half.

Penn State 42, Nebraska 10: A fifth consecutive TD drive included a 26-yard pass from McSorley to Juwan Johnson on the second play. The Lions moved the ball at will and converted a third-and-5 on a wildcat snap to Barkley to get to the Nebraska 16. McSorley found DeAndre Thompkins wide open in the end zone on the next play for a 16-yard score with 1:19 to go in the half.

THIRD QUARTER

Penn State 42, Nebraska 17: The Huskers had only 77 yards in the first half, but they drove 90 yards for a TD on their second possession of the second half. Lee hit Stanley Morgan Jr. on a 34-yard pass to get to the PSU 25, and two plays later, Sean Lambert scored on a 24-yard run with 6:40 left in the third.

Penn State 42, Nebraska 24: The Huskers hurt PSU with a deep pass again, as Lee connected with Morgan for a 51-yard gain down the left side to the Lions’ 22. Lee hit De’Mornay Pierson-El for a 22-yard score on the next play with 2:34 to go in the third.

FOURTH QUARTER

Penn State 49, Nebraska 24: McSorley hit Johnson on 16- and 14-yard passes during a 79-yard TD drive, also connected with backup QB Tommy Stevens for a 13-yard gain to the 17. McSorley hit Gesicki on the next play for a 17-yard TD with 13:59 to play.

Penn State 56, Nebraska 24: Stevens took over at QB and led the Lions on a 75-yard TD drive in just six plays, including a 20-yard run himself. He finished it off by hitting tight end Nick Bowers on a 15-yard TD with 10:13 remaining.

Penn State 56, Nebraska 31: The Huskers scored the first of three TDs in the final 6:32 as they drove 75 yards, culminating with a 7-yard TD pass from Lee to Morgan with 6:32 left.

Penn State 56, Nebraska 38: The Huskers drove 97 yards in a little over three minutes, with the drive ignited by a 41-yard pass from Lee to Morgan. Lee hit JD Spielman for a 31-yard pass to the 1, and Mikale Wilbon scored on the next play with 1:20 to go.

Penn State 56, Nebraska 44: The Huskers recovered an onside kick and found the end zone again, this time on the game’s final play as Lee hit Jack Stoll for a 3-yard score. No PAT was attempted.

COMMENTS