UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Teeth chattered. Knees shook. Snot dripped. And at the climax of the season's coldest night, Bill O'Brien called time out.
To ice the Nebraska kicker.
It's hard to know for sure what was riding on Pat Smith's right foot just after 7 p.m. Saturday in the hills of Pennsylvania. A nine-win season? His coach's job? Or maybe something even more lasting.
The stadium speakers tried to mess with Smith's head — playing a mash-up of “Ice Ice Baby” and “Under Pressure.” The Penn State students funneled from the corner of the stadium to empty seats behind the goal posts. All the while, Smith embraced the moment, doing a few jumping jacks to stay loose.
“I love it. I love playing against the crowd.”
He knew exactly what lay in front of him. A swirling wind, 11 Nittany Lions, 37 yards of frosty grass and some 80,000 fans. Just what he envisioned when he packed up last spring and took the risk of his football life.
Nebraska came out of the timeout. Smith lined up, picked his target and drilled the game-winner through the uprights. At least he thought so. Until officials called NU's Givens Price for a false start. Move it back five yards.
He saw the concern in his teammates' eyes. Don't worry, he told them. I got this.
“This is what I live for,” he said later. “This is why I'm here. This is what I want.”
* * *
Bo Pelini's sixth season in Lincoln has unfolded similarly to his first five — especially 2012. But last year his heroes were guys he expected to be heroes — Taylor Martinez, Jamal Turner, Ben Cotton, Daimion Stafford, Rex Burkhead.
The crazy part of 2013 is who's making the big plays. Ron Kellogg, Jordan Westerkamp, Tommy Armstrong. Players nobody expected in these positions back in August.
Smith, however, took the strangest path to his big moment.
He grew up in Quincy, Ill., the son of a motorcycle enthusiast. He fell in love with adrenaline rushes. He raced Motocross and FlatTrack. He snowboarded and skateboarded.
“We're kind of a wild family,” Smith said.
But his best athletic skill was kicking. In high school, he booted a game-winning extra point to clinch the conference championship at Notre Dame High School — he sprinted across the field and celebrated with the student body.
Smith had two options coming out of Quincy: Go play receiver/safety at a Division II school. Or take the risk, walk on at Missouri and try to kick.
On the first day of fall classes, 2009, he and five other kickers tried out for Gary Pinkel's staff. Smith and another guy made the cut. Come back in the spring, coaches said. Then a few days later, Smith got a call. Be at practice.
The first game he suited up was Thursday night ESPN — Missouri vs. Nebraska.
“The rain game,” he said.
After redshirting that fall, Smith surveyed his situation — sophomore Grant Ressel was a first-team All-American — and decided to go back home.
He kicked three years at Western Illinois, making all 10 field-goal attempts in 2012 for a dreadful team. As NU won six straight to make the Big Ten championship game, he was losing six straight against foes like South Dakota State and Northern Iowa.
Smith was on schedule to earn his degree in May, which enabled him — by NCAA rule — to transfer for his final year of eligibility and kick immediately.
He thought about finishing up at Western Illinois. He opted for the risk, sending his films out to Division I schools that might give him a shot. Nebraska called him back, even thought it had Mauro Bondi on scholarship.
Smith showed up in the summer and won the job. He made 7 of 8 field goals before Saturday, when Pelini called on him to make a 19-yarder from the right hash with four minutes left.
Smith tried to persuade the official to spot the ball a little closer to the middle of the field.
“He wasn't having it.”
* * *
Overtime. Fourth down. 20-20.
Pelini paced the sideline, arms crossed as Smith locked eyes on holder Sam Foltz. With the cold, his foot was kinda numb. With the wind, he didn't have his usual range. But when he struck the ball at the 32-yard line, he took one look and knew.
Right down the middle.
Smith tore off his helmet and took off running for the opposite end zone — ŗ la Kellogg after the Northwestern Hail Mary — and held his index finger against his mouth, teasing the crowd. Shhhhh!
“The emotions of the moment kinda take over at that point. ... You're just kinda running around like a chicken with your head cut off just having fun.”
He hugged everybody he could find: Jeremiah Sirles. John Papuchis. Spencer Long. After awhile his teammates started moving toward the locker room. Smith wasn't done celebrating.
He walked back toward the winning goal posts, where he found Ameer Abdullah (another hug) and Ron Kellogg.
“Ronnie!” he said
“Ahhh!” Kellogg replied.
The Nebraska football highs aren't like they used to be, that's no secret. But Pelini's teams continue to produce these stirring dramas, these indelible moments of joy, these unpredictable heroes, these lifelong memories.
Four long years ago, Pat Smith stood in the rain and rooted against a Nebraska fourth-quarter rally. One year ago, he was kicking in front of 3,286 people in Macomb, Ill.
“This is what you dream about,” he said.
With his teammates headed back to the northwest tunnel, Smith decided it was finally time to go indoors. Warm up. Check his iPhone, which was receiving new Twitter notifications, Facebook messages and texts by the second.
Wait, he thought. Mom and Dad!
He detoured to the north end zone, looking into the upper deck, which feels a mile high. He couldn't see them, but he knew they were there — somewhere — shivering in the cold, watching him.
He looked up into the dark and — before leaving the field — he blew a kiss.
* * *
Video: NU kicker Pat Smith after the Penn State game:
Video: NU coach Bo Pelini after the Penn State game:
Video: NU quarterback Ron Kellogg after the Penn State game:
Video: Postgame analysis with Sam McKewon: