While it occurred with more than seven minutes to go, Matt Lehman’s goal line fumble was critical to the outcome. The immediate outcry was obvious: many Nebraska fans brought up Penn State’s McCloskey reception in 1982 that appear to be out of bounds and were complaining that ABC kept showing the play. (That controversy generates big advertising dollars, Husker fans.) Then this morning, the Penn State sites were full of articles claiming conspiracy and saying that the Big 10 doesn’t want Penn State to be successful because of the Sandusky scandal. Given that many Penn Staters read the Sandusky report and said we needed to “wait for the facts”, it is hardly a surprise that even Penn State journalists rushed to play the conspiracy card.
When I watched the play live, I couldn’t see what happened, although I thought that it was more likely than not that Lehman had scored judging by where the ball came loose. When I watched the replay the first time, I wasn’t as quick to think it was a touchdown, which admittedly was what I wanted to hear. After watching the replay a few times, I judged a couple of things. Lehman moved the ball within his hands from where he caught as he extended toward the goal line. If you watch his hands from where he caught it to the goal line, he carries it loosely. While his hands and the ball seemed to be moving forward, the ball seemed to jiggle and rotate in a way that was not consistent with the way his hands were moving, as if he was fumbling the ball forward. It seemed that Lehman’s grip on the ball was on the back third of it, and you could see a lot of the rotating ball outside of his grasp. The image of the ball was before his hands, not in his hands. I wouldn’t have argued had the call been overturned, but as I sat there and watched the play, I feared the overturn, but I feared that the evidence to overturn the call was not complete.
To me, this is an instance where 98% of the evidence to overturn a call was there, but it just wasn’t enough to change the call because of the slight bobble. The right call was made, if a fumble begins at the first bobble of a football and if the bobble continues through to the ball’s dislodging via contact with another player. I will concede something else: if the play had been called a touchdown on the field, it likely would have stayed a TD as well. Let’s not forget something else: when a fumble occurs, officials more often than not will swallow the whistle, because it’s harder to make a non-fumble a fumble than it is to make a fumble a non-fumble. Nebraska got a huge break, as the official were erring on the side they were trained to air on.
The Big 10 is not out to get Penn State. The NCAA leveled severe penalties against PSU, not the Big 10. Given the conference’s lack of quality (and depth of quality teams behind Ohio State), they need Penn State to be viable so that all the TV screens in Pitt and Philly keep watching Penn State and the Big 10 and not ACC or Big East football, aside from the fact sports conspiracies just don’t exist (NBA included).
To Penn State fans who are arguing, I’d point out that you lost more on that play than Nebraska gained. If Penn State had scored, Nebraska fans don’t panic. There’s seven minutes to go, and the Huskers have the wind at their back, only needed a field goal to tie, and a team that’s built to come from behind. The game wouldn’t have been over for them. In addition, Penn State got two more possessions when they were behind by only a score. This wasn’t the final decision maker in a game you lost by 9. This was game between two teams that were pretty evenly matched and swung on many key moments. That play wasn’t even close to the only deciding factor, and it just happened late in the game.
Matt McGloin’s behavior in the post-game press conference was horrible, as well as his actions on the field. He should have been flagged for taking his helmet off on the field after he was called for the safety (he also took his helmet off after the Lehman fumble). Couple with his tweet of the play, I’m guessing there are a lot of NFL teams taking him off there draft boards.
Unfortunately, this may not be the final officiating controversy Nebraska finds itself in this season. While I don’t think the Big 10 will put in the fix for the Huskers in the Big 10 Title Game, consider the following: Wisconsin looses their last two games and is 7-5, a reasonable assumption, given that Brett Bielema may save Montee Ball’s carries for the Title Game. Everyone assumes the Big 10 wants Nebraska to win as the conference has had enough bad publicity and doesn’t want to see a 8-5 team in the Rose Bowl. Not saying it will happen, but fans will put the dots together.
Compared to what we’ve seen, this Nebraska comeback wasn’t nearly as dramatic as the ones on the road at Northwestern or Michigan State. When Nebraska’s offense took the field after Penn State turned the ball over in the end zone in the fourth quarter, I had to remind myself that this was the first time Nebraska had lead in regulation since the Michigan game two weeks ago, other than the six most important seconds against Michigan State. As the teams went in at halftime, there were some signs that hadn’t been there in the previous weeks. There was the argument on the sidelines between Pelini and Stafford; another exchange showed a despondent Will Compton talking to his head coach on the bench. It’s no wonder that Pelini said at halftime that he thought it might take until the fourth quarter for his team to make up the deficit.
This win wasn’t a comeback for Nebraska so much as it was a series of little moments between two pretty evenly matched teams. Nebraska won because, quite simply, Nebraska had more ways to win, was at home, and forced Penn State into poorly timed mistakes. In a way, this may have been the most important of Nebraska’s come from behind wins because you know that the crowing from Columbus will start the second Ohio State beats Michigan. At least Penn State can’t claim they beat Nebraska, in spite of the fumble that may not have been.
As we saw last year with Penn State, this series is bound to be a chippy affair year in and year out. After their comeback came up short in Happy Valley, Penn State has to be steaming about letting the Huskers off the hook. Three out of the next four years, Nebraska and Penn State will met in their penultimate games of their seasons, except in 2014 when Nebraska will open their home conference schedule against the Nittany Lions.
Nebraska burned through a lot to be 5-1 after a daunting stretch of conference games: Ameer Abdullah’s 35 touches today were a lot to ask, and Rex Burkhead may have to come back. But Pelini deserves a lot of credit for going to Imani Cross in short yardage situations, and bringing Braylon Heard off the bench. Burkhead was ridden into the ground last year, and let’s hope there’s still something left with both him and Burkhead. But Abdullah does do a better job of getting out of bounds; part of Burkhead’s physical breakdown now was that he sought out contact, a death knell to a running back’s career in the Big 10.
So Nebraska’s through with the toughest part of their schedule. All they have left are Minnesota, who already has their bowl eligibility in hand, and Iowa, still reeling. We’ve seen Pelini stub his toe against teams like this before, so yes, there’s some reason to be cautious, especially playing at Iowa on a short week in an early game (I do know it’s Iowa). This team has relied on magic for the past couple week, even when they’ve been good. Perhaps for the next couple of weeks, they can just be good.