A week ago, Nebraska set NCAA records for first downs (43) and total offense (883 yards) against New Mexico State. Different State today; different state of affairs for the second-ranked Cornhuskers.
Penn State charged 65 yards and scored on a two-yard pass from Todd Blackledge to tight end Kirk Bowman with four seconds left to muster the come-from-behind victory, by 27-24, Nebraska thought it had 74 seconds earlier.
This was a meeting of top-10 teams television mandated would begin in autumn sun and end after dusk; the game also offered vivid contrasts, State taking a 14-0 advantage that could have been larger but for three errant field goals, and Nebraska coming back to take the lead on an 80-yard drive after an end-zone interception.
It scored, with 1:18 left, on a one-yard dive by quarterback Turner Gill; in Nebraska's mind, that was too soon. Much too soon. State got a 15-yard break on the next kickoff, the ball on the 35 instead of the 20 when an official caught a Husker tapping a Lion's jaw too intently.
From there, it took State 10 plays to stay unbeaten after four games and deliver the first defeat to a Nebraska team that had won twice by a combined score of 110-7. In truth, only six of those plays worked; they produced an ending as thrilling as any from teams of such stature.
To get to 4-0, the Lions had to be successful on fourth-and-11 from the Nebraska 34 during that final push; they were, on a pass from Blackledge to Kenny Jackson. Blackledge for the day/night game completed 23 of 39 passes for 295 yards and three touchdowns. Bowman's two catches for the game were for touchdowns.
From the 23 after that fourth-down pitch, Blackledge scrambled for six and then threw a 14-yard sideline pass to tight end Mike McCloskey. Nebraska argued he caught the ball out of bounds; the officials said no. The Huskers bellowed even louder that Bowman trapped the ball a play later in the end zone; the official with the best angle again ruled otherwise.
"Yeah, I had it," Bowman said. "I caught it about six inches above the ground. I was concerned that the officials weren't going to call it."
Many State fans sense the fate of the football team by how the band's drum major performs about a half-hour before kickoff each home game. If he executes a very difficult front flip, the day will be blissful.
He was sort of good today, stumbling just a bit on reentry but then recovering. That was a terrific omen.
His classmates botched the opening kickoff, costing themselves field position, and once crossed the Nebraska goal-line twice in the same series without scoring a point. Still, they managed a 14-7 halftime lead, on a 14-yard pass from Blackledge to Bowman and two-yard run by Curt Warner.
State's early frustration included passes from Blackledge that Jackson and Gregg Garrity caught in the end zone; each was nullified by a penalty and Massimo Manca later missed a 50-yard field-goal try.
Nebraska hardly was the awsome force of a week ago the first half. Lotta mistakes: small ones, such as a bobbled snap from center on fourth down on the State 28; large ones, such as fumbles by wingback Irving Fryar and Gill that the Lions recovered.
But an 80-yard push in slightly more than a minute produced the Huskers' first touchdown. Each of the seven plays was a pass, the final one a combination of Nebraska toughness and State laxity. On second and 10 from the State 30, Gill was smacked hard just as he let a medium-range pass fly. It hit Fryar square on the numbers at the 19, and two Lions hit him square on the numbers four yards later.
He still scored.
First, Fryar bounced off Roger Jackson; next came the usually wicked-hitting Mark Robinson. Not this time, for Fryar rolled off the blow and into the end zone.
State's first-half joy included Warner breaking out of a three-game slump with two familiarly elusive runs. The first was a 15-yarder from midfield; next came a 31-yard gain that would have been a one-yard loss had Wade Praeuner been holding anyone else.
The second half began frightfully for the Huskers, a drive ending with no points on the State 17 when Gill could not control a poor snap on a 35-yard field goal attempt.
Seven plays later, State had a 21-7 lead. Two major gainers on the drive were passes of 19 yards to McCloskey, and 18 to Jackson in the end zone maneuvering against double coverage.
Nebraska pulled back to within a touchdown on a push that included two fine option runs by Gill. Gill also tossed two yards, to Mike Rozier, for the touchdown with 3:28 left in the third quarter.
Much folly followed, including three lost fumbles in four plays.
Nebraska eventually got three points out of the confusion, a 37-yard field goal by Kevin Seibel. State could have put the game out of reach the next series, but Nebraska's Neil Harris intercepted a 22-yard pass from Blackledge in the end zone with 6:52 left.
The Huskers scored methodically, and took the lead for the first time; the Lions scored quickly, and won.