Penn State builds huge first-half cushion, holds off Nebraska, 56-44

Nebraska Penn St Football
Saquon Barkley takes the ball 65 yards for a touchdown against Nebraska during the first half.

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Penn State did what it wanted to do on a rainy Saturday at Beaver Stadium, but the Nittany Lions went into the locker room afterward to dry off not exactly feeling thrilled how the game ended.

The Lions roared out to a 42-10 halftime lead over Nebraska with the help of three first-half touchdowns by a rejuvenated Saquon Barkley, one on a 65-yard run, but the Cornhuskers never stopped competing, even scoring on the last play of the game to reduce Penn State’s winning margin to 12, 56-44.

The Lions (9-2, 6-2 Big Ten) outgained the Cornhuskers, 439-77, in the first half and scored a touchdown on five straight possessions. But if they had any idea on coasting home, Nebraska (4-7, 3-5) was ready to take full advantage, outgaining Penn State, 389-170, in the second half.

Asked whether his team took its foot off the gas in the second half, Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin replied, “I’m not sure.”

“We obviously didn’t play as well coming out of the half on offense or defense,” Franklin said. “Then we made some substitutions and continued still not to play as well as we should play. I told the coaches in [the locker room], I don’t think that we played up to our standard in the second half.”

With all the emotions swirling on senior day, the Lions could be excused for losing some focus, but wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton said he didn’t think they did.

“They obviously were playing from behind, so they were scratching and clawing their way back into the game, and things like that,” Hamilton said. “We weren’t sustaining drives like we should have been, but we were still able to come out with a win.”

The Lions were thrilled to have the seniors go out with a win in their final game at Beaver Stadium, and one of the big stars was Barkley, a junior who might have been playing his last game at the venue, with NFL teams looking at him as a high first-round pick.

Barkley returned to his Heisman Trophy form with 158 yards in 17 carries and also caught six passes for 66 yards. His 65-yard scoring dash came on Penn State’s third offensive play of the game, and he also went over from 1 and 8 yards out.

So was this his last home game?

“To be honest, I’m not really focused on the future right now,” said Barkley, who reached the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the third consecutive season. “I’m excited that we sent the seniors off on a great note with a win.”

Trace McSorley threw three touchdown passes, two to Mike Gesicki, and ran for another. He completed 24 of 36 passes for 325 yards, and obviously enjoyed himself during Penn State’s touchdown streak in the first and second quarters, something offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead has been expecting.

“You kind of have that mentality that we can go out and score on every drive,” McSorley said. “Coach Moorhead talks about it: When we step on to the field, we’ve got to be expecting to score a touchdown, that being the standard. So for us, it’s just kind of being able to get on that roll, being able to get things going like that.”

Penn State matched its largest lead after McSorley’s 17-yard pass to Gesicki and a 15-yard scoring strike from backup Tommy Stevens to Nick Bowers made it 56-24 with 10 minutes, 13 seconds to play. But Nebraska quarterback Tanner Lee, who suffered a concussion in last week’s loss to Minnesota but was cleared to play Saturday, led the Cornhuskers to three touchdowns from that point.

Lee passed for 399 yards, 327 of them coming in the second half.

So the game looked a lot closer than it was, but Franklin said he wasn’t going to let that ruin his evening.

“I’m fighting the tendency to not be happy and enjoy wins,” he said. “There’s too many miserable coaches across the country that aren’t happy after wins, the same thing with players in the locker room. We’re going to enjoy the wins around here.”