Things went from bad to worse, and even worse yet, for Penn State in a 30-23 loss to Nebraska at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Neb., on Saturday.
After an embarrassing effort in the first half that had them fall behind, 27-6, the Nittany Lions made a determined comeback to get to within seven. But they were unable to score the tying touchdown on their last two trips into the red zone.
Here is a look at how the Lions fell to 0-4 for the first time since 2001.
Never say die
After trailing by 21 at halftime, the Nittany Lions finally got their offense clicking in the third quarter, showing signs of life behind the play of quarterback Will Levis, who came on in the second quarter for an ineffective Sean Clifford. A 21-yard pass to Jahan Dotson set up a 31-yard scoring run by freshman Keyvone Lee that accounted for their first touchdown of the game midway through the third quarter.
That was followed by Jake Pinegar’s 27-yard field goal, his third successful kick of the game, and a 5-yard run by Devyn Ford, a score that was set up on Levis' 74-yard completion to tight end Pat Freiermuth that made the score 30-23. A leaping interception by Brandon Smith gave Penn State life at the Nebraska 48 with 7 minutes, 39 seconds remaining. But the Lions came up empty on that possession, and their final one as well.
Penn State ended up outgaining the Cornhuskers, 501-298, and ran 91 plays to their opponent’s 60. But it could not come up with that elusive first victory.
Red zone blues
The Nittany Lions have been hampered all season by their inability to score touchdowns in the red zone, and that ineffectiveness continued Saturday. On seven trips inside the red zone, they managed only one touchdown and three field goals. And their lack of punch on the final two drives of the game prevented them from coming back from 21 points down and tying the game.
On first down from the Nebraska 11, Levis threw four straight incompletions, giving the Cornhuskers the ball with 3:37 to play. The Lions got the ball back at the 2:34 mark and marched from their own 31 to the Nebraska 9. But again, the end zone would not be touched.
Levis misfired on his first two throws, then was sacked for a four-yard loss. After Penn State called its final timeout with 37 seconds remaining, Levis tried to find an open receiver but was hurried by defensive tackle Ben Stille and threw a floater that fell incomplete to end the game. For the season, Penn State has only eight touchdowns on 20 red-zone trips.
Clifford trying his best, time to give him a break
Clifford is one of the unquestioned leaders of this team, but his confidence appeared to be shot after throwing an interception and losing a fumble that was returned for a touchdown for the second straight week. Clifford threw his sixth interception of the season in Nebraska territory on Penn State’s first possession, leading to a short field and a Cornhuskers field goal. Two possessions later, Clifford was in the clutches of safety Deontai Williams for a sizeable sack when Williams punched the ball out of his hands, scooped it up, and went 26 yards for a touchdown.
After last week’s similarly embarrassing loss to Maryland, Clifford said, “Mentally, I’m pissed,” and he probably felt worse after being lifted from Saturday’s game after the fumble. But he was engaged the rest of the way, helping and encouraging Levis.
Same old, same old
Once again, Penn State came out sluggish, allowing its opponent to score a touchdown on its first possession of the game. The Nittany Lions had the Cornhuskers in third-and-10 and third-and-6 on the drive, but Nebraska converted both. Clifford ended a promising opening drive for the Lions by throwing an interception for the fourth straight game, leading to a field goal.
A personal foul penalty against linebacker Brandon Smith preceded a two-foot pass that led to a 45-yard touchdown by Zavier Betts. The scoop-and-score by Williams produced another Cornhusker touchdown just 2:32 later. With the Lions trailing, 27-6, at halftime, a rally didn’t look likely. But the Lions never stopped trying.