UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Pat Smith watched his kick sail through swirling snow and plain white uprights, ripped off his helmet, flung it and tore off in the opposite direction. Ciante Evans stopped to catch his breath. And Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis took in the Beaver Stadium scene after the Huskers' 23-20 overtime win over Penn State.
“Survive, man!” he said, beaming.
Papuchis found Smith, the Nebraska kicker who had nailed a 42-yard field goal, with Penn State students running in the bleachers to cram themselves behind the goal posts after a false start penalty had negated his first make. Papuchis screamed Smith's name and gave him a bearhug. Papuchis would get a reward of his own minutes later.
The Huskers indeed survived, as they've been wont to do in recent years, with a script well-worn like the school desks reporters sat in afterward. They heard an exhausted coach Bo Pelini, off a long week of preparation and speculation, tap his bottle of water on a table and offer short, weary answers on how Nebraska pulled out its latest nail-biter.
“It's a roller coaster of emotions,” Pelini said. “It always is.”
“Winning ugly — but it's a win,” offensive coordinator Tim Beck said.
Saturday, the Huskers (8-3 overall and 5-2 in the Big Ten) lost their starting quarterback, Tommy Armstrong, to an early ankle injury. They lost another offensive lineman in Brent Qvale, their sixth line-related injury. They lost Evans briefly to the locker room with an injury before he returned. They lost a fumble right at Penn State's goal line and a fumble 8 yards from their own goal line, which set up a Nittany Lions touchdown. They saw a long touchdown run waved off because of a personal foul penalty that even Penn State beat reporters, standing at the press box elevator, couldn't believe.
Still, in front of 98,517 frigid fans, the Huskers won with that handful of out-of-left-field, explosive plays they often seem to find against long odds.
The biggest: Kenny Bell's 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the third quarter, a transcontinental run in which he started the return near one corner of the field and finished the play in the opposite corner, beating several Nittany Lion defenders to the goal line.
“That was pretty sweet, when he got over the kicker,” Pelini said.
Nebraska led 14-13 after Bell's score and extended the lead to 17-13 with Smith's first field goal of the game. Penn State retook the lead 20-17 on quarterback Christian Hackenberg's 46-yard pass to Jesse James early in the fourth quarter. NU was left driving into a swirling wind.
Ameer Abdullah — who had lost the fumble at PSU's goal line in the second quarter but still ran for 147 yards — appeared to rip off a 62-yard touchdown on a stretch play. But officials threw a flag on wide receiver Sam Burtch, who was blocking behind Abdullah. Burtch got called for a personal foul.
Pelini was furious right after the call, reserved after the game.
“They said (the block) was unnecessary,” Pelini said. “You saw my reaction.”
“They robbed me. They robbed me of a long one,” Abdullah said with a slight smile. “They robbed Sam, too.”
Abdullah got credit for only a 50-yard run. NU worked its way to Penn State's 1, but settled for a field goal instead of trying for the touchdown on fourth-and-goal.
“The smart thing was to take the points,” Beck said. “We struggle scoring right now. We just do. You gotta take the points on the road.”
Nebraska forced a Penn State punt — that landed inside the Husker 5. Then Ron Kellogg — who threw for 191 yards and a touchdown in relief of Armstrong — fumbled a snap. Back to the 1. Right back to where the Huskers were last week with Michigan State. It was third-and-14.
What do you think about chucking one, Pelini said over the headset to Beck.
Why not, Beck said.
The worst thing that could happen, Beck figured, was an interception, which was as good as a punt.
Kellogg threw a good enough pass to Quincy Enunwa to draw a pass interference penalty on Penn State (6-5, 3-4). It gave NU just enough breathing room to force overtime.
“About time we got a call,” Pelini said afterward, taking a swig of water.
Penn State had already won two overtime games this year at home. The Nittany Lions got the ball first and stuck with their plan of stretch running plays and play-action passes off those plays. They couldn't get a first down.
“They probably ran five plays all day — just out of different sets,” linebacker Michael Rose said.
PSU kicker Sam Ficken — who missed an extra point in regulation — pushed a 37-yard field goal just right.
Nebraska's turn. The Huskers plowed to the 20. Smith came on and made the kick, but guard Givens Price was flagged for a false start. So smith had to make it again. The second kick was truer than the first, tumbling into the dark, and Smith seemed to know he'd made it immediately.
It touched off another celebration — how many is that now over the past two years? — and the same admiring lines from coaches.
“I was almost laughing,” said offensive line coach John Garrison, who had one tackle, Zach Sterup playing at a position (left tackle) he barely knew and two more guards (Price and Ryne Reeves) playing in the biggest moments of their career. “I can't believe everything we've endured.”
Said Beck: “That's the kind of intestinal fortitude that this group's got. It's been a privilege to coach these guys this year. It's been a lot of fun to see those guys go out there and play like they play and believe in themselves. You can't say enough good things about it.”
Papuchis said he couldn't recall the last time Nebraska lost back-to-back games in the regular season — it was 2009, incidentally — and such a thing pointed to NU's resiliency.
“A team with less character folds,” Papuchis said. “Our guys don't do that. They've always been that way. ... They come back and they fight, no matter what the surroundings are and sometimes the negativity that comes after a loss. They just keep fighting.”
For this fight, Papuchis got a prize. As he was about to head up the tunnel, a Penn State fan called him over and shook his hand. The fan gave Papuchis a trophy. It had a wooden base and a golden football on top of it. Penn State couldn't go to a bowl because of NCAA sanctions, the fan explained, so this game, Senior Day, was its bowl game. Papuchis looked at it with a mixture of good fortune and confusion. He took it back to the locker room.
As Husker players and coaches left for their buses, you could see the trophy, sitting on a red storage cart for dirty pants. On the wooden base, a gold-colored metal plate commemorating the game between the “University of Nebraska” and “Penn State University.”
After an evening of frigid survival, Nebraska won its first — and likely only — Happy Valley Bowl.
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Video: NU coach Bo Pelini after the Penn State game:
Video: NU kicker Pat Smith after the Penn State game:
Video: NU quarterback Ron Kellogg after the Penn State game:
Video: Postgame analysis with Sam McKewon: