LINCOLN, Neb. (AP)Luke McCaffrey had a hand in two touchdowns in his first start, Nebraska’s defense made two huge late defensive stops and the Cornhuskers held on to beat Penn State 30-23 for their first win Saturday.
McCaffrey took over for Adrian Martinez, who had started all of his 23 previous games at Nebraska (1-2, 1-2 Big Ten) but turned in flat performances in the Cornhuskers’ first two games.
McCaffrey looked good in the first half, but the Huskers generated only three points in the second and Penn State came back from a 21-point deficit to make it close.
”That decision is one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made,” Nebraska coach Scott Frost said. ”I think so much of Adrian Martinez as a person. He’s been through a lot with us. He certainly practiced well enough to play so it was a tough decision. I thought considering it was (Luke’s) first start he did a lot of good things and there’s a lot there to build on.”
A Top 10 team to start the season, the Lions (0-4, 0-4) are off to their worst start since Joe Paterno’s 2001 team also opened with four straight losses.
Sean Clifford struggled again for Penn State, getting replaced by Will Levis after turning over the ball on two the Lions’ first three possessions.
”This year, obviously, we’re not making enough plays and the turnovers, it’s been challenging to overcome,” Lions coach James Franklin said. ”We’re not consistent in our tackling. This year, with the results, it magnifies everything.”
Nebraska led 27-6 at half, but the Lions pulled within 30-23 and had two chances to tie or go ahead in the final 4 minutes.
The Lions turned the ball over on downs after Levis threw four straight incompletions from the 11-yard line. Nebraska went three-and-out, and Levis moved his team to the 9. He threw in desperation under pressure from Ben Stille on fourth down, and the Huskers ran out the clock.
”The state needed it, the team needed it, I needed it,” Frost said. ”We talked at halftime, and I talked to them frankly, that we’ve been in this situation before. You need to learn how to win. Winning will help the kids know they can win going forward.”
The Huskers led 24-3 early in the second quarter. Zavier Betts took a flip from McCaffrey and ran 45 yards untouched on a jet sweep and then blitzing safety Deontai Williams grabbed Clifford, popped the ball out and picked it up for a 26-yard fumble return.
One of McCaffrey’s highlights came late in the first half as defensive lineman Fred Hansard was about to wrap up him up behind the line. McCaffrey switched the ball to his left hand and dumped it off to Marvin Scott III. Instead of taking a sack, Scott picked up 14 yards to convert the third-and-9 and set up Connor Culp’s 25-yard field goal as time ran out in the half.
Penn State wasn’t out of it, though. Keyvone Lee broke loose for a 31-yard touchdown and the teams traded field goals before Levis connected with Pat Freiermuth for 74 yards to set up Devyn Ford’s 5-yard touchdown run that got Penn State within 30-23 early in the fourth quarter.
McCaffrey cooled off in the second half and was 13 of 21 for 152 yards and he ran 13 times for 67.
Levis was 14 of 31 for 219 yards.
Penn State: The Lions out-yarded the Huskers 501-298, but turnovers continue to plague them and they’re staring at the possibility of an 0-5 start for the first time since the program started in 1887. Clifford threw interceptions on two of his last three series against Maryland last week and was picked off and fumbled on two of the first three series against the Huskers. Like at Nebraska, it looks as if there’s been a changing of the guard at quarterback.
Nebraska: McCaffrey capitalized on his opportunity. He brings a spark to the offense, is always a threat to run and showed with his left-handed pass that he’s got the knack for making something out of nothing.
Nebraska was on the west sideline for what’s believed to be the first time since Bob Devaney moved the Cornhuskers to the east sideline in 1962, according to football program historian Mike Babcock. No reason for the change was immediately disclosed. The home team’s sideline typically is on the side of the press box, which is on the west side at Nebraska.
Penn State hosts Iowa on Nov. 21. The Nittany Lions have beaten the Hawkeyes six straight times.
Nebraska hosts Illinois on Nov. 21. The Huskers are 6-1 against the Illini since joining the Big Ten.
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