Nebraska vs. Penn State: 10 Things We Learned in Cornhuskers' Win

Dave Radcliffe@DaveRadcliffe_Contributor IIINovember 24, 2013

Nebraska vs. Penn State: 10 Things We Learned in Cornhuskers' Win

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    In a game that was close throughout, Nebraska was able to overcome an unfavorable call and costly turnovers to defeat Penn State in overtime at Beaver Stadium, 23-20.

    At times it was a snowy, blistery scene in Happy Valley, which made throwing the football a difficult proposition. But the insertion of Ron Kellogg III at quarterback in place of Tommy Armstrong for Nebraska might have made the difference.

    Kellogg played the final three quarters for the Cornhuskers and sparked the offense, completing 20 of 34 passes for 191 yards and a touchdown. Nebraska was paced on the ground by the always-reliable Ameer Abdullah, who rushed for 147 yards but also lost a fumble at the goal line in the first half.

    Had it not been for two Nebraska turnovers that essentially created a 14-point swing, as well as a questionable personal foul penalty late in the game, the Huskers might have had an easier time of it. Either way, they were able to spoil Penn State's senior day and improve to 8-3 (5-2) on the season.

    Continue on to find out 10 things we learned from the Cornhuskers' victory over the Nittany Lions.

Special Teams Were the Difference

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    Any game that comes down to overtime is typically going to involve a pivotal field-goal attempt, but even before the overtime period, it was special teams that kept Nebraska alive.

    Had Penn State place-kicker Sam Ficken not shanked an extra point off the uprights in the early going, this game never would have gone to overtime. And immediately after the Nittany Lions scored to go up by six points, Kenny Bell returned the ensuing kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown.

    Huskers' kicker Pat Smith was a perfect 3-of-3 on the day, including a 42-yard attempt in overtime that ended the game. Right before that, Ficken missed a 37-yard attempt wide-right to make life easier for Nebraska. 

    While there were several plays that helped keep the Nittany Lions in the game, the Huskers would be traveling back to Lincoln with a loss had it not been for the extreme differences between Nebraska and Penn State on special teams.

Ron Kellogg Revitalized Nebraska

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    At the end of the first quarter, Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini rolled the dice and decided to go with senior quarterback Ron Kellogg over the freshman, Tommy Armstrong, who started the game. Armstrong had thrown for just one yard before his exit.

    Coming in cold right off the bat, Kellogg started picking apart the Penn State pass defense and began the game 11 of 13 for 113 yards and a touchdown to Quincy Enunwa on a beautiful slant pattern. And when he had to, Kellogg kept plays alive with his feet, including a 12-yard scamper in the second half that converted a first down.

    After inserting Kellogg into the game, Pelini and Nebraska never looked back, and that might have been the underlying difference. Armstrong could very well be the future at Nebraska, but it was Kellogg who revitalized his team on Saturday and helped lead them to a hard-fought victory in a hostile environment.

The Personal Foul Call on Nebraska Was Terrible

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    The Nebraska offense wasn't going anywhere in the second half, only producing three points in the first 21 minutes of the second half, and that was largely due to an acrobatic interception by Ciante Evans.

    All of a sudden, Abdullah broke through the line and took it to the house for a 62-yard touchdown run to give the Huskers a four-point lead.

    At least that's what had appeared to happen.

    Instead, Nebraska wide receiver Sam Burtch was flagged for a personal foul behind the play. It appeared all Burtch had done was come from the side of a Penn State defender and lay a perfectly clean block, but the officials deemed it an unnecessary hit, costing Abdullah and the Huskers a touchdown.

    To be frank, it was a terrible call, and it wound up taking points off the board for Nebraska as it would have to settle for a 19-yard field goal to tie the game. Fortunately, the call didn't wind up determining the game, but it simply shouldn't have been made in the first place.

This Game Shouldn't Have Been Close

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    Not to take anything away from Penn State, who actually accumulated more total yards than Nebraska and looked stronger in the trenches for much of the game. But the fact that this game went down to the wire was more of a product of what the Huskers did to themselves, not how well the Nittany Lions played.

    In the first half, a fumble by Abdullah at the 1-yard line was recovered in the end zone by Penn State, taking away what likely would have resulted in a touchdown. Later on, Kellogg coughed up the football deep in Nebraska's own zone, which led directly to a touchdown for the Nittany Lions.

    The Huskers also had seven penalties for 54 yards on a day where the officials were letting them play, just going to show how often mental mistakes and carelessness with the football cost Nebraska. Nevertheless, the Cornhuskers managed to do just enough to come away victorious. 

Third-Down Play-Calling Was Questionable

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    The questionable third-down play-calling goes for both teams, as Penn State and Nebraska combined to go 5-of-31 on third down. 

    Each team showed the ability to move the ball successfully throughout the game thanks in large part to their running attacks, but when it came to third down, it's almost as if the pressure became too much both for the players and offensive coordinators to move the chains.

    Nebraska wound up going 3-of-17 on third down, and while much of the time it comes down to execution, there were instances when the Huskers would drop back to pass on 3rd-and-short and run the ball when several yards were required to pick up the first down.

    Yes, the conditions weren't favorable for a high-scoring contest, but if Nebraska could have at least been mediocre, or come closer to its season average 41.5 conversion percentage, when it came to third down, it could have put far more points up on the board. 

Ameer Abdullah Is an Elite Running Back

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    Those running backs over at Wisconsin garner a lot of attention, but what Abdullah is doing over at Nebraska is just as impressive, if not more so.

    Not only is Abdullah the Big Ten's leading rusher, but he is also among the top running backs in the country when it comes to yards per carry and rushing yards in general. Abdullah added to his total against the Nittany Lions by rushing 25 times for 147 yards to bring him on the cusp of 1,500 yards with two games yet to play.

    Abdullah's fumble was uncharacteristic and came at an inopportune time, there's no doubt, but the junior tailback deserves more national recognition for what he has accomplished this season. If he chooses to remain in Lincoln for his senior season, he could generate some preseason Heisman Trophy buzz.

    With conditions unkind to passing the football, it was on Abdullah to be a workhorse and get it done on the ground, and he gave the Huskers a reliable option, just as he does week in and week out.

The Huskers Are Setting Themselves Up for a Nice Bowl Game

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    With Minnesota's loss to Wisconsin on Saturday afternoon, Nebraska moved into sole possession of second place in the B1G Legends Division and has the fourth-best record in the conference overall.

    The dreams of returning the Big Ten Championship Game or even a BCS bowl went away when the Huskers failed to protect home field and come away with a victory over Michigan State last week. But standing at 8-3 with a very winnable game at Memorial Stadium against Iowa coming up the day after Thanksgiving, a 9-3 (6-2) record is a very respectable number.

    It would be good enough to get the Huskers into a New Year's Day bowl game, perhaps as good as the Outback Bowl if two Big Ten teams are able to reach a BCS bowl. While Nebraska and Bo Pelini obviously sets higher standards for itself, playing on Jan. 1 is nothing to scoff at, especially with some of the close calls the Huskers have endured this season.

The Secondary Has Come a Long Way

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    Nebraska possesses one of the better pass rushes in the Big Ten, but in the early going this season, there were concerns about how the secondary would perform after losing some experience. That concern was warranted, as the Huskers were vulnerable on the back-end against Wyoming right off the bat.

    Two players who have really improved as the season has progressed are Evans, who is considered to be the team's top corner, and Stanley Jean-Baptiste, who leads the team in pass breakups and like Evans has four interceptions.

    Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg failed to complete even half of his passes against Nebraska on Saturday, and after returning from injury, Evans hauled in a beautiful interception to set up a field goal. Coming into play, Nebraska had the No. 4 pass defense in the B1G, and you never would have guessed it based on how this defensive backfield perform in the early stages of 2013.

Kellogg Is All About Westerkamp

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    In one of the most memorable plays of the college football season, Ron Kellogg found Jordan Westerkamp on a Hail Mary pass to defeat Northwestern as time expired. That miraculous play kept Nebraska's conference title hopes alive.

    Well, it's been Armstrong getting a majority of the reps at quarterback since, but with the Huskers looking for a spark on offense, they brought in Kellogg. It wasn't much of a surprise that Kellogg instantly turned to Westerkamp, as the two seem to have formed a special connection since the miracle at Memorial Stadium.

    Westerkamp led Nebraska in receiving with five catches for 62 yards. He provides the Huskers with a nice possession receiver and a complement to a downfield, red-zone threat like Bell and Enunwa.

    Most importantly, he has provided Kellogg with somewhat of a security blanket and was critical in jump-starting the Nebraska offense against the Nittany Lions.

Momentum Doesn't Mean Anything

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    Some people have a pretty strong opinion when it comes to momentum in sports. Is it a made up anomaly or something that truly has a drastic impact on the flow of a game?

    Well, there were several instances during Saturday's game in Happy Valley in which there were plays that took the wind out of each team's sails. One fumble by Abdullah cost Nebraska seven points, and then a fumble by Kellogg led to seven points for Penn State. After the Nittany Lions seized the lead in the third quarter, Bell returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown to hush the crowd.

    Both teams faced plenty of adversity and always seemed to have the resiliency to answer. Perhaps momentum does exist, but that doesn't mean players can't overcome momentum to create their own. We saw plenty of that at Beaver Stadium in what wound up being an entertaining, back-and-forth contest that tilted Nebraska's way just enough in the end.