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LINCOLN — Cardboard cutouts swayed in the cool November wind as Penn State and Nebraska staged more football theater.
As the Nittany Lions marched downfield and the Huskers held on for dear life, they did so in utter silence.
In the long and storied history of this series, there have been controversial catches, a Kickoff Classic and a pregame prayer with both teams.
But nothing like this.
Except for a smattering of family and friends on the west and east sides, Memorial Stadium was empty on game day, possibly for the first time.
It had been 357 days since the Huskers' last win and more than 400 days since the last home win. “The state needed it, the team needed it, I needed it,” coach Scott Frost said.
Several thousand fan cutouts on the east side and north end zone. No cheers. No chants. No groans.
After the first Husker touchdown, a staff member stood in Section 5 of the east stands and released 20 red balloons, one by one.
Two winless, brand-name programs, looking for something to take from this strange COVID season, had the place to themselves.
Imagine the Nebraska and Penn State uniforms, all alone in a massive stadium.
This was the wildest spring scrimmage ever.
But what dramatics and what a finish. Finally, a Nebraska finish.
Penn State, trailing by seven, twice drove to the red zone in the final seven minutes.
And the Blackshirts bowed up twice and kept them from scoring.
Nebraska 30, Penn State 23 will be entered into long list of big games and memories in the series, with a modest and meaningful place for NU coach Scott Frost.
This was Frost’s 10th win at Nebraska, hardly a distinguished list. But by far it’s his best win.
A much-needed win.
“The state needed it,” Frost said. “The team needed it. I needed it.”
After back-to-back losing seasons, NU faced a 0-3 start that would have buried the program in self-doubt.
These are Frost’s players now, and people are ready to go. But the Huskers were coming off possibly the worst defeat in Frost’s time here, a stumble at Northwestern.
The fans were restless. The team was anxious. The coach was frustrated.
No more close. Time to figure out a way to win.
The Huskers did, in a way that would shock most fans coming into this season.
This was a Blackshirt win. Erik Chinander’s Blackshirts.
They’ve improved, and this was one step up the ladder of progress. A big step.
An interception by cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt that he returned 55 yards down the sideline to the PSU 15, setting up a field goal and 10-0 lead.
A sack and fumble recovery, both by safety Deontai Williams, who scooped and carried the loose ball for a 26-yard touchdown that made it 24-3.
Turnovers. Big plays. Hard hitting. Aggressive pressure. This is the Blackshirt defense that we’ve seen in three games, a defense few outside the locker room predicted.
It’s not perfect. They let their guard down in the third quarter and gave up a long pass that set up a game-tightening touchdown.
Suddenly it was nervous time for the team needing a road map to victory. If there had been 90,000 in the stadium, they would have been holding their breath.
It was time for someone in red to put their foot down. It turned out to be 11 someones and 22 feet.
Instead of wilting, the Blackshirts showed some fiber.
“That defense was impressive as heck,” said quarterback Luke McCaffrey.
“Heck yeah I was nervous,” Luke McCaffrey said after his first start — and Nebraska’s first win — of the season. “I probably got an hour of sleep last night.” The redshirt freshman bounced around like he was wide awake in the 30-23 victory over Penn State.
We’re 500 words into this and finally mentioning that new quarterback. The Colorado Kid. Cool Hand Luke.
The redshirt freshman, popular with real fans and cutouts, relinquished his backup status and stepped into the spotlight.
He did mostly good things. He kept the car on the road. There was an interception when he was hit as he threw. He flashed an improv move, a left-handed toss on the move that went for a 14-yard gain.
He won. And had the kids been lining the Tunnel Walk, they surely would have been chanting “Luuuuuuuke” and begging for a fist-bump or glove. Get ready for another run on No. 7 jerseys.
McCaffrey looked capable, not overwhelming, which is just fine for a redshirt freshman’s starting debut. Some of that had to do with Frost and offensive coordinator Matt Lubick dialing back the offensive toys.
If a cardboard cutout could boo and groan, it would have been unanimous early in the fourth quarter with Nebraska having seized the momentum and looking to knock out the Nittany Lions once and for all.
NU had first down at the PSU 15, and Frost called three straight-ahead runs — one to plucky hybrid back Wan’Dale Robinson, who replaced the “dinged up” Dedrick Mills.
That went for 1 yard. Two keeps by McCaffrey netted 7 more. No rollouts, no tight ends, no fades, no cool jet sweeps like the one Zavier Betts scored on early in the game.
Zavier Betts, a highly touted prospect from Bellevue West, scored his first career touchdown Saturday to cap off a special day for the Husker wide receiver.
Frost admitted the game plan went from aggressive to conservative once the Huskers took the big lead. That left Big Red playing not to lose.
But with a new quarterback who had just been intercepted, a team learning to win and Penn State suddenly wearing down the Huskers on both sides of the line of scrimmage, it was understandable.
Fortunately for Nebraska, defensive mode was a good thing.
And just as fortunate, Penn State coach James Franklin did something weird.
The Nittany Lions’ offensive line was opening gash holes and PSU was moving on the ground. Perhaps Franklin started feeling it after Will Levis’ 74-yard pass play — wide open — that led to the Lions closing the gap to 30-23.
But twice in the final minutes, as Penn State knocked on the door of overtime and beyond, Franklin kept calling passes.
Thanks to pressure and stout defensive backs, NU defended four straight passes on first down at the 11. No dice.
A few minutes later, Levis was back at the NU 9, but there were two incompletions, a sack by Luke Reimer and a hurried throw forced by Ben Stille that fell harmlessly to the turf to end it.
The sounds of Nebraska players whooping it up cascaded around the old stadium.
Finally, the Huskers made more plays than they allowed. Finally, they found a formula: Defense lifting up a new quarterback finding his way. Big plays all around.
In the season of COVID, it was right on time.
“This team needed to turn the page,” Frost said.
All in a new chapter of Nebraska-Penn State and — who knows — possibly more.
Check out the full video from Scott Frost's postgame press conference following the win over Penn State as he breaks down how much this win means for the Huskers.