James Franklin shed a tear and 23 roses were given to the families of the graduating seniors who were set to play for the final time at Beaver Stadium.
While the Nittany Lions’ hopes of playing in the college football playoff this season are gone, those aspirations of playing in a New Years’ Six Bowl are still very real. In order to see themselves into one of those games, however, the Nittany Lions would have to dispatch a lowly Nebraska team struggling to find its identity in the post-Tommy Armstrong era. Even with Tanner Lee under center for the Cornhuskers, a task that was an unknown until late Friday night after suffering a concussion the week prior, Penn State throttled Nebraska in the final game from Beaver Stadium in 2017, 56-44. The final score was not indicative of how the game played out, as the 12 point margin neither covered the spread nor looked impressive. But the game was nowhere near as close as the final score indicated. In all aspects, the game was over after two quarters.
With the victory, the Nittany Lions finished undefeated in front of their fan base for the second straight season. The last time Penn State lost within the friendly confines of Beaver Stadium, Christian Hackenberg was the quarterback and the vaunted Michigan defense stifled him all afternoon long, as the Wolverines dropped the Nittany Lions 28-16. In useless news, and I’ll shamelessly plug myself here, that game was the final I was able to call from Beaver Stadium as a member of Penn State student radio.
All shamelessness aside, this game, like all that have come before it, left us with information that we can take away as we head into the final week of the regular season. Here are four things we’ve learned about the victory of Nebraska.
1. Saquon Barkley Played His Last Game In Beaver Stadium
Fine, I concede. You win Saquon faithful. I said that I wasn’t going to touch the Saquon Barkley narrative all season long, because, let’s be honest, it’s unnecessary. We already know the future of Barkley is bright and will long outlast his time at Penn State. He’s going to be a top ten pick in the 2018 NFL Draft and will remind fans of Barry Sanders with his ability to make defenders miss. So there really wasn’t any point in talking about Barkley. But now that he almost assuredly suited up in the blue and white for the final time in Beaver Stadium, it’s worth discussing.
Barkley’s talents have been muffled all season behind a poor offensive line and a lack of understanding of Barkley’s abilities, it seems. The offensive line has been subpar all season, so we understood that Barkley would find it tough sledding against better defensive fronts. But what has become more evident as the season progresses is that Joe Moorhead hasn’t used Barkley as he should be utilized for much of the season. While the RPO has been the staple of the Penn State offense for the last two seasons, and has led to great success with Trace McSorley and Barkley, it effectively limits Barkley’s forward motion. Instead of being able to get a full head of steam out of a singleback of pistol formation, Barkley stands straight up, off the hip of McSorley, when the ball is snapped. When he is given the football out of the backfield, his initial burst is limited because of his stand still start. It will be interesting to see how Barkley is used in the NFL, behind a more full offensive line. It could be lethal.
Despite his poor productivity, Barkley racked up 158 yards on 17 carries. Barkley added an additional 66 receiving yards, finishing the day with 224 yards from scrimmage. He also found the endzone three times, breaking a Penn State record for most touchdowns scored in a career, passing Lydell Mitchell with his 39th touchdown. Last year, he found the endzone 22 times between the run game and through the air. This season, he’s notched an additional 17 touchdowns. Remember, he’s only a junior, which makes this feat even more impressive.
2. The Penn State Run Defense Was Stellar
When Tanner Lee was sidelined with concussion-like symptoms last week, the Cornhuskers turned to true-freshman Patrick O’Brien for the remainder of the game. Regardless if Lee or O’Brien were to start under center against the Nittany Lions, one would have expected Nebraska to heavily run the football this past weekend. And while the Cornhuskers found themselves behind for nearly the entirety of the game, and had to throw the ball 41 times in the contest, they did still run the ball 26. There run game was completely muted in terms of yardage, as the Cornhuskers could only find 67 yards on the ground. That comes out to be a 2.6 yards per carry average. The only caveat that you could take away from this run game and the Penn State front seven is that Nebraska found the endzone three times on Saturday. Mikale Wilbon scored twice no ten carries. He also rushed for 53 yards on those ten carries. If you take Wilbone out of the equation, you know have a Nebreska rushing attack that ran the ball 16 times for 14 yards, including just 12 yards on seven carries from Devine Ozigbo, who rushed for 100 yards or more in three straight games earlier this season.
This stalwart effort by the front seven continued a solid season of stuffing the run. The Nittany Lions have been run against 398 times in 11 games, allowing 1306 yards. That effort by opposing offenses has led to an average of 3.28 yards per carry. The defense has also been good for 118 rushing yards per game, which ranks 19th in the nation. An amusing statistical analysis about that stellar defensive effort this season is that Penn State is only the sixth best in the Big Ten this season, purveying the idea that the Big Ten is the best defensive conference in all college football. They sit behind Wisconsin, who is the best in the country at 79 yards per game on the ground, as well as Michigan State, Northwestern, Ohio state and Michigan, all of which reside in the top 15.
3. Stanley Morgan Jr. Continues To Impress
While I don’t often discuss the individual efforts of a Penn State opponent, I would be remiss if I didn’t express my admiration for Stanley Morgan Jr., the junior wide receiver for Nebraska. Despite the fact that Morgan has played on the outside while subpar talent lines up under center for Nebraska, the junior wide out has seen great success in 2017. After hauling in 58 passes his freshman and sophomore years combined, Morgan has grabbed 54 balls through 11 games in 2017. This comes despite missing a game against Rutgers in late September. In line with his uptick in receptions comes an increase in both yards and touchdowns. This season, Morgan has caught more touchdown passes (8) than he did in his first two seasons (5) combined. He has also outproduced himself this year in yardage (912) compared to his first two years (757).
Morgan hauled in seven passes against a very talented Penn State secondary, going for 185 yards and a touchdown. While his touchdown came at a time that the game was already sealed in favor of the Nittany Lions, Morgans till found the endzone to cut the lead to 56-31. Eventually, the Cornhuskers would cut the lead to eight points with just over a minute left. The game never felt in question, but the fight that Nebraska showed at the end of the contest was promising for the future of the program.
I don’t believe that Morgan will opt for the NFL Draft in April, and instead, will return for his senior season in Lincoln. If he continues to produce, and catches another 50-60 balls while going for nearly 1000 yards and eight scores again, don’t be surprised to hear Morgan’s name called fairly early in April, 2019. He could play himself into a top-two rounds pick.
4. Penn State’s Offense Moved At Will Against Nebraska
It was pretty obvious looking at the score that Penn State’s offense marched up and down the field all afternoon against Nebraska. The stats do nothing but add to that mantra. But what might actually get lost in the 609 total offensive yards, a season high for Penn State, is the ease that the Nittany Lions moved the football on Saturday. Penn State took the opening kickoff to the 26 yard line. Three plays, 74 yards and 54 seconds later, Penn State was leading 6-0 after Saquon Barkley broke loose and ran for a 65 yard score. It was that easy. After forcing a three-and-out AND fumbling the subsequent punt, the Nittany Lions held Nebraska to just three points. The offense struggled and punted the next drive, giving way to a Nebraska touchdown that saw the Cornhuskers take the lead 10-7. Following that touchdown, though, the Nittany Lions scored on five consecutive offensive possessions will the defense limited the Cornhuskers to 15 plays on five possessions. Those 15 plays allowed for five straight three-and-outs in which Nebraska racked up a total of seven offensive yards, including a drive that went for negative seven yards. In what felt like the blink of an eye, the Nittany Lions went from trailing 10-7 to leading 42-10 at halftime. It was an exercise in futility for the Nebraska defense, which had no answer for the Penn State offense. Four different Nittany Lions scored on those five possessions, including two touchdowns from Barkley, and one from McSorley, Mike Gesicki, and DeAndre Thompkins. The ability to spread the offense out and find four different ways to score in a single half was the primary reason as to why Penn State fans were excited to start the season. The touchdowns for Barkley and Gesicki will be the final ones they score in Beaver Stadium, a moment they’ll likely never forget.
Mandatory Credit: Chris Dunn/York Daily Record via USA TODAY Sports