LINCOLN, Neb. - It's Penn State versus Nebraska, of course there would be controversy.
That's just how things have gone throughout the rivalry between two of college football's traditional powers.
A costly and questionable fumble in the fourth quarter hurt the Nittany Lions on Saturday, but the players acknowledged afterward that's not the reason they lost the game, 32-23, to the No. 18 Cornhuskers before 85,527 fans at Memorial Stadium.
"You can't leave the game in the referees' hands, and we all know that. ... That's just on us, man," PSU cornerback Stephon Morris said.
The Lions (6-4, 4-2 Big Ten) played a strong first half and appeared to be in control up 20-6 at the break. That lead vanished in a hurry in the third quarter, though, as Nebraska (8-2, 5-1) scored two quick TDs to pull even.
Penn State regrouped with a field goal for a 23-20 edge, then Nebraska found the end zone with 10:57 to play for its first lead, 27-23.
Then came the play that had Penn State fans, not to mention quarterback Matt McGloin, all fired up.
The Lions took over at their own 25 with 10:57 left, got a 17-yard run by Zach Zwinak and a 38-yard pass from McGloin to Allen Robinson down to the Nebraska 17. Penn State got a break on third-and-6 from the 13 when McGloin was sacked and the Cornhuskers' Eric Martin was flagged for a face mask.
That gave PSU first-and-goal at the 7, and on second down from the 3, McGloin dumped off a pass to Matt Lehman.
The big tight end tried to fight his way through several defenders into the end zone, and as he attempted to stretch the ball over the goal line, it was ripped out of his hands and ruled a fumble on the field. Nebraska's Daimion Stafford recovered in the end zone for a momentum-changing touchback.
The play was reviewed, though, and TV replays appeared to show the ball crossing the goal line for a touchdown before the fumble.
But the replay officials didn't see it that way.
The fumble call stood, Penn State fans erupted with outrage on Twitter and the Lions didn't threaten the rest of the way, even though there was still 7:39 left to play.
"I felt like it was over the goal line but ... they didn't have enough evidence to reverse it," Lions coach Bill O'Brien said.
Big Ten official John O'Neill gave this explanation after the game: "The ruling on the field was it was a fumble short of the goal line. It went to replay, and the replay official said the play stood, based on the views he had. It's ultimately his decision."
ABC broadcasters Sean McDonough and Chris Spielman both said on the air they thought it was a touchdown.
Mike Pereira, former vice president of officiating for the NFL, tweeted, "It's a close play in PSU/NEB but if it was me I would've reversed it to a touchdown. Seems to have control when the ball broke the plane."
Nebraska went three-and-out on the ensuing series, then punter Brett Maher delivered one of the game's biggest plays when he booted a 69-yard kick down to the PSU 2.
McGloin was flagged for intentional grounding from the end zone on the Lions' next series, resulting in a safety that gave Nebraska a 29-23 lead with 5:02 to go.
Penn State got one more shot, taking over at its 20 with 3:44 left, but went four-and-out as McGloin threw four incompletions. Nebraska ran three plays and got a 33-yard field goal from Maher with 23 seconds left to seal it.
"We had opportunities to win," Morris said. "We should have won. That was a game that we should have won. Could have played better."
|McGloin vs. Top 25|
|Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin is now 1-6 as a starter against teams ranked in the AP Top 25. The breakdown:|
|Ohio State||2012||9||L 35-23|
|Michigan State||2010||11||L 28-22|
|Ohio State||2010||8||L 38-14|
|Note: Michigan was 25th in the coaches poll but not ranked in the AP poll when PSU beat the Wolverines, 41-31, in 2010.|
The controversial call on the fumble might dominate the discussion about the game, but as Morris and others said, the Lions had plenty of other opportunities to win that had nothing to do with that call.
"I think there was a lot more to it," Robinson said. "You can't go to one play in the whole second half and say that won or lost the game. They were in the same situation; they fumbled on the goal line. So you can't say that that lost the game. [Our offense] got off to a real slow start in the third quarter, and our defense stayed on the field a lot. So I think that was a big part in the second half."
Nebraska rolled up 438 yards of offense, rushed for 267 yards and easily won the time of possession (34:19 to 25:41). Most importantly, the Cornhuskers scored 26 points in the second half and held Penn State to three.
Furthermore, Zach Zwinak ran for a career-high 141 yards and a 50-yard TD, but he also lost a fumble at the Nebraska 5. McGloin was just 18-of-37 and threw a costly interception on PSU's third offensive play of the second half - just like in the loss to Ohio State - and Nebraska returned it to the Lions' 4 to set up a tying touchdown. Penn State also was flagged eight times for 80 yards.
So there was plenty of blame to go around, not just for the refs.
"Losing's a terrible feeling," O'Brien said. "It's miserable. It's absolutely miserable. It's like part of you dies."
Penn State 7, Nebraska 0: Matt McGloin tossed a 23-yard pass to Brandon Moseby-Felder to convert a third-and-9, and on the next play, Zach Zwinak busted free up the middle for a 50-yard TD with 13:14 left in the quarter.
Penn State 7, Nebraska 3: The Cornhuskers kept the ball for more than six minutes on their first drive, doing most of their damage on the ground with running back Ameer Abdullah and quarterback Taylor Martinez. On third-and-18 from the PSU 36, Martinez fired a strike down the middle for 30 yards to Jamal Turner to set up first-and-goal at the 6. The Huskers went backwards on three straight running plays as the PSU defense got tough, and Brett Maher kicked a 32-yard field goal with 6:17 to go in the quarter.
Penn State 7, Nebraska 6: The Lions were on the verge of scoring, but Zwinak fumbled at the Nebraska 5 late in the first quarter. The Huskers took over at the 6 and got a 33-yard run from Abdullah on the first play. They kept in on the ground for most of their 12-play, 84-yard drive, which got to first-and-goal at the 8. The Lions came up big on defense once again, though, stifling Nebraska and forcing Maher to kick a 27-yard field goal with 12:29 left in the half.
Penn State 10, Nebraska 6: The Lions' defense held Nebraska deep in its own territory and forced a punt into the wind, and Jesse Della Valle returned it to the Husker 36. McGloin hit Allen Robinson for a 10-yard gain to the 23, and a personal foul penalty on Nebraska set up first-and-10 at the 11. The Lions couldn't do anything after that and settled for a 27-yard field goal from Sam Ficken with 6:58 to go in the half.
Penn State 17, Nebraska 6: A huge swing on special teams gave PSU the ball in scoring territory. Huskers return man Tim Marlowe muffed a punt, and Mike Hull recovered for the Lions at the Nebraska 31. McGloin hit Robinson on a 9-yard pass to convert a third-and-7, putting PSU at the 19. McGloin later hit tight end Jesse James in the right flat that went for an 11-yard TD with 2:42 left in the half.
Penn State 20, Nebraska 6: A 31-yard screen pass from McGloin to Zwinak put the Lions in position to score again. That moved PSU to the Nebraska 25, and after Zwinak gained 9 yards on two carries, PSU eventually was in a fourth-and-1 at the 16. McGloin converted on a sneak, but the Lions were called for a false start penalty. Bill O'Brien decided to let Sam Ficken attempt a 38-yard field goal, and he drilled it with 1:08 to go in the half.
Penn State 20, Nebraska 13: The Huskers took the second-half kickoff and quickly got back in the game with a 75-yard TD drive. They got a huge break when, from the PSU 46, a pass from Martinez was tipped by linebacker Michael Mauti and bounced right to Kenny Bell for a 22-yard pickup to the 24. Martinez turned in a highlight-reel 21-yard run down to the 1, and Imani Cross busted in on the next play with 11:48 left in the quarter.
Penn State 20, Nebraska 20: McGloin threw an interception from his own 15, picked off by Daimion Stafford, who returned it to the 4. Cross scored from the 2 two plays later to tie it with 9:37 to go in the quarter.
Penn State 23, Nebraska 20: The Lions came right back to regain the momentum, with Zwinak running hard on several carries, including a 20-yard gain to the Nebraska 18. The drive stalled, and Ficken nailed a 35-yard field goal to reclaim the lead with 6:01 to go in the quarter.
Nebraska 27, Penn State 23: The Huskers took their first lead when Taylor Martinez hit Jamal Turner for a 5-yard TD with 10:57 to play. Nebraska got a huge 56-yard pass play from Martinez to tight end KC Hyland, who beat linebacker Gerald Hodges downfield in coverage and rumbled all the way to the PSU 10 to set up the TD three plays later.
Nebraska 29, Penn State 23: A controversial call on a fumble by PSU tight end Matt Lehman prevented the Lions from taking the lead midway through the quarter. The Huskers then recorded a safety when McGloin was called for intentional grounding from the end zone with 5:02 to go.
Nebraska 32, Penn State 23: Maher kicked a 33-yard field goal with 23 seconds left to seal the win.