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Penn State’s nightmare 2020 season continues.
The Nittany Lions dug themselves a huge hole on Saturday on the road against Nebraska. It was a hole that was too big to dig out of in a 30-23 loss.
Two ugly turnovers by quarterback Sean Clifford, including a fumble returned for a touchdown, directly led to 10 Nebraska points as the Huskers built a 27-6 halftime lead.
Those mistakes got Clifford benched, and backup Will Levis nearly led a massive comeback. A Devyn Ford five-yard touchdown that came after a 74-yard completion from Levis to star tight end Pat Freiermuth cut the Nebraska lead to 30-23 with 9:20 to go.
Penn State would reach the red zone with a chance to tie the game on its next two drives. Both came up empty. They were the fourth and fifth red zone trips of the day for the Nittany Lions that ended without a touchdown.
Those offensive failures were costly as Penn State dropped to 0-4 for the first time since 2001. It’s an inconceivable start to the season for a team that had College Football Playoff aspirations when the year began.
The loss marked the second time this year that the Nittany Lions dramatically out-gained their opponent, but still found a way to lose.
Penn State doomed by early turnovers
Penn State’s defense allowed Nebraska, which made a quarterback switch from Adrian Martinez to Luke McCaffrey, to march right down the field to open the game.
On the ensuing drive, Clifford gave it right back to the Nebraska offense by throwing an ugly interception on a ball thrown behind Jahan Dotson. That interception was returned by Nebraska’s Cam Taylor-Britt to the PSU 15-yard line, allowing the Huskers to take an early 10-0 lead.
PSU got on the board with a field goal on the next drive before Nebraska freshman Zavier Betts came in motion, took a quick pass from McCaffrey and scampered 45 yards for a score.
Penn State was already in rough shape, and it got worse when Clifford took a hit from Deontai Williams and fumbled. Williams then hopped on the loose ball and took it 26 yards for another Nebraska touchdown to make it 24-3.
At halftime, following two more field goal drives, Nebraska’s lead was 27-6.
Levis gives PSU spark, but red zone offense sputters
Levis is more known for his running ability, and he put that on display once he came in for the reeling Clifford. He gave the offense some life in the third quarter and PSU managed to cut the Nebraska lead to 27-16 going into the fourth quarter.
Nebraska tacked on a field goal to make it 30-16 early in the fourth, but the momentum was firmly on PSU’s side when Levis spun to avoid a blitz and hit Freiermuth for a huge play that set up the Ford score to cut the deficit to 30-23.
The pressure was even more on Nebraska’s side when McCaffrey was intercepted on the ensuing possession. But Penn State’s offense, set up with the ball near midfield, could not take advantage.
First, PSU had a first down at the Nebraska 11, but four consecutive passes from Levis fell incomplete, including a few curious fade routes that had little chance of being completed.
That turnover on downs gave the ball back to Nebraska with 3:37 to go, but the PSU defense quickly forced a three-and-out. On the next try, PSU had first-and-goal from the 9-yard line.
The subsequent sequence went: Levis incomplete, Levis incomplete, Levis sacked, Levis incomplete. Game over.
Big win for Nebraska
As ugly as this outcome was for Penn State, it was a major sigh of relief on the Nebraska side. The transition to Scott Frost has not gone smoothly and an 0-3 start — one that would have featured a large blown lead — after back-to-back losing seasons would be a tough pill to swallow. Instead, the Huskers are 1-2 with Illinois coming to town next week.
Frost made a big decision by making the move from Martinez to McCaffrey at quarterback. Martinez has been the Huskers’ starter for the last two seasons, but has been largely ineffective. McCaffrey still has a ways to go as a passer, but he gave the offense a needed spark.
Other young players like Wan’Dale Robinson and Betts also flashed for the Nebraska offense, and that’s a promising young group for Frost to build around.
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