UNIVERSITY PARK — Even with blowing a late lead to get there, Penn State didn’t mind its game against Nebraska going into overtime.
Playing beyond regulation at Beaver Stadium has worked that well for the Nittany Lions over the past 12 months.
“We all felt really confident and really comfortable in overtime,” senior linebacker Glenn Carson said. “I think everybody on our team thought we’d get it done.”
This time, Penn State didn’t.
Pat Smith’s 42-yard field goal capped Nebraska’s first possession of overtime and lifted the Cornhuskers to a 23-20 win over the Lions on a brisk Saturday evening at Beaver Stadium.
It was the third Penn State home game this season that went to overtime; four of the past five Big Ten games played at Beaver Stadium have gone past regulation. This was the first of that group that the Lions lost.
Smith, whose 19-yard field goal with 4:29 left tied the game, answered a 37-yard miss by the Nittany Lions’ Sam Ficken on the initial possession of overtime. Ficken also missed an extra point late in the first quarter.
Smith had to make the winner twice — his attempted 37-yarder moments earlier went through the uprights but was whistled before it was officially kicked because of a false start penalty.
Last season, Ficken’s 37-yard field goal in the first overtime lifted Penn State past Wisconsin in its season finale at home, giving the Lions an 8-4 finish in their first season under coach Bill O’Brien.
O’Brien has made no secret of his affection for the upperclassmen on his first two teams as a college coach — a group that stuck with him and the university after crushing NCAA sanctions were levied during the summer of 2012.
O’Brien repeatedly said how important it was to give the seniors a win in their final home game. It didn’t happen this season in a game played in windy conditions with temperatures below freezing and the frequent specter of flurries.
“Final game at Beaver Stadium; it was emotional for all of us,” fullback Pat Zerbe said. “I wish we could have come out with the win today … everyone’s pretty upset. Everyone played as hard as they could, but it just didn’t go our way.”
Bill Belton did not play because of illness, so Zach Zwinak carried the bulk of the running-game load for Penn State. Zwinak had 35 carries for 149 yards.
Christian Hackenberg accounted for three touchdowns (two passing, one rushing) and had an interception. He was 16 for 33 for 217 yards.
Big Ten rushing leader Ameer Abdullah had 25 carries for 147 yards for the Cornhuskers (8-3, 5-2), who have beaten the Nittany Lions (6-5, 3-4) during each of the Cornhuskers’ three seasons since joining the Big Ten.
Penn State, which had won each of its past five overtime games, appeared poised to have a chance to win it in regulation when it had Nebraska backed up at the 1 and facing a third-and-14 with 1:22 left. But Ron Kellogg III heaved a pass deep down the left sideline intended for Quincy Enunwa that drew a pass interference penalty on Lions cornerback Jordan Lucas.
Canon-McMillan’s Mike Hull had stopped Kellogg at the 1 on a third-and-goal with 5:42 left. That forced Smith’s tying field goal.
Penn State allowed a touchdown on a kickoff return for the second consecutive game, this time a 99-yard run by Kenny Bell to answer the Lions taking the lead less than five minutes into the second half.
That Lions’ touchdown was set up a strip sack, forced fumble and recovery by C.J. Olaniyan at the Nebraska 8. Two plays later, Hackenberg scored on a 7-yard bootleg in which he outran the Cornhuskers’ defense to the pylon in the far corner of the end zone to give Penn State a 13-7 lead.
Zwinak had six carries during an eight-play drive that gave Penn State a 6-0 lead with 33 seconds to play in the first quarter. Adam Breneman had a touchdown reception from fellow true freshman Hackenberg for the second game in a row, this one from 2 yards.
But Ficken missed the extra point — his first miss of the season. In a low-scoring/field position-oriented game, the Lions would chase that point the remainder of the chilled evening.
“There’s a lot of things we could have done to win the game that we didn’t, and we didn’t win the game,” cornerback Adrian Amos said. “I honestly didn’t even think about if Sam didn’t make kicks. It’s a team loss; teams lose games, not players.”
Jesse James had a 46-yard touchdown catch-and-run from Hackenberg early in the fourth quarter to give Penn State a 20-17 lead. It was the first time in any of the Lions’ losses this season that they had a lead in the fourth quarter.
“We didn’t do a good enough job to win the game,” O’Brien said.