Nebraska gets past Penn State 30-23 in McCaffrey's 1st start

Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford (14) hands the ball off to running back Devyn Ford (28) as tight end Zack Kuntz (82) blocks Nebraska linebacker Garrett Nelson (44), during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Lincoln, Neb., Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020.

On Penn State’s final possession Saturday, with the game on the line, it drove to a first-and-goal at the Nebraska 9. And threw four straight incomplete passes.

On Penn State’s second-last possession, it drove to a first-and-10 at the Nebraska 11. And threw four straight incomplete passes.

Some of those throws were low-percentage fade routes to smallish wide receivers. True-freshmen wide receivers, in a couple of cases.

All of those throws were by relief quarterback Will Levis, who has had little work with the first-team offense, even in practice.

On Penn State’s third-last possession, it ran inside, on second-and-goal from the five, and scored a touchdown.

This week’s chat-room angst will focus, understandably, on red-zone play-calling. But that’s only the micro story of the Nittany Lions’ putrid 30-23 loss to previously winless Nebraska, and Penn State’s first 0-4 start to a season since 2001.

The macro story revolves around the ways in which the 2020 Lions don’t look and act and play like James Franklin’s football team.

You may not consider Franklin (ahem) an X-and-O savant or a crafty game manager, but in his seven years here the Lions have generally played with intelligence and discipline and organization. They have played hard and with focus. With a handful of exceptions, they have beat the people they were supposed to beat.

For much of the first half of Saturday’s fiasco, they looked like a team that not only could beat themselves, but were determined to.

They committed only five penalties, but one was a late hit, linebacker Brandon Smith hanging on to a ballcarrier far after the whistle. Another was unsportsmanlike conduct by offensive lineman C.J. Thorpe, who was lucky not to have been whistled for a cheap shot on a Nebraska player laying face down on the turf three plays earlier. Another was a blatant face-mask grab by end Shaka Toney.

Toney’s grab might have saved a big play, and Franklin questioned the call on Smith after the game.

He admitted, though that, “all the little stuff after every single play - we’ve got to get that corrected.’’

The defense, in particular, plays with a cocky edginess that is not at all earned.

The offense, meanwhile, can’t get out of its own way.

Offensive line play is always, in theory, Job One. Penn State seemed to make progress on that front Saturday. Franklin moved veteran Will Fries from guard to tackle and inserted R-freshman Caedan Wallace at tackle, and there was consistent push, against a team that defended the run pretty well against Ohio State three weeks ago.

Penn State ran for 262 yards (not counting sacks), 5.2 yards per carry, and both the Lions’ touchdowns.

Two bewildering turnovers, meanwhile, may have signaled the end of Sean Clifford’s tenure as the starting, or at least full-time No. 1, quarterback.

The Lions were down just 7-0 when Clifford missed freshman WR Parker Washington by five yards on a simple out-route, leading to an interception, leading to a Nebraska TD.

Early in the second quarter, Clifford got grabbed while looking to pass by blitzing safety Deontai Williams. Clifford was spun around, holding the ball loosely, and Williams punched it free, scooped it up, and jogged in for a touchdown.

Franklin had seen enough, and it’s possible that Clifford in his own mind had had enough, at least for the afternoon.

Levis is a bruising runner with a big arm, and he undeniably gave Penn State a lift. The Lions had 310 yards after halftime, and won the second half 17-3.

Indeed, Penn State outgained Nebraska by 203 yards, had more passing and rushing yards, total and per play, ran 91 plays to the Huskers’ 60, made way more first downs and time of possession, had fewer penalties and the turnover margin was just minus-1.

That it keeps happening doesn’t make it any less absurd.

Franklin of course said, “We’re not going to name a starting quarterback right after a game,’’ but Penn State at least found a little fire in the second half. It’s not farfetched to say Levis ignited it.

As they dragged themselves off the canvas after halftime, the Lions seemed to feed off each other a bit, have some fun and perhaps most importantly, understand how hard it is to win.