The BigRich Sports Report
Was it celebration or relief? Why couldn’t it be both? It was definitely both.
After the sweetest formation in football, Nebraska tight end Austin Allen turned around to see Luke McCaffrey, fresh off his first career collegiate start, and hugged it out.
It was more than a calendar year since Nebraska’s last home win and a week short of its last win at all, but the Huskers held onto a 30-23 victory over Penn State Saturday within the oddly quiet confines of Memorial Stadium.
You could hear it in Oz’s voice after the game. You could hear it with everyone who talked postgame. The Huskers needed to learn how to win again and Saturday went a long way toward that goal.
“We felt we’ve been so close for so long and to finally get a win was huge for us,” Allen said. “The energy in the locker room was completely different. This is a big stepping stone for us to take off.”
Saturday had the feeling of a do-or-die situation. Two winless teams where one stops the bleeding and builds some momentum while the other continues to spiral out of control.
One thing was certain -- Oz was ready to go.
The former Husky gave me the final hint as to who would be the starting quarterback, taking warm-up throws from McCaffrey just before kickoff.
Then, on Nebraska’s opening drive, Oz snagged two McCaffrey passes, including one that showed just how tough -- and sure-handed -- the junior tight end is.
His first catch came as McCaffrey scrambled to his right with his eyes upfield. I’ve clamored for years and will continue to do so that is has to be near impossible to miss a 6’8” tight end over the middle.
McCaffrey saw him.
“A scrambler on offense is fun for us receivers because you can get open in areas you didn’t think you’d be open,” Allen said.
Oz adjusted his route from across the middle and took off in a 45 degree angle upfield to find extra space.
By the time the pass got to his mitts, there sure wasn’t any extra space left.
Oz pulled in the pass and was blasted in the shoulder pads, then sent helicoptering across the 50 into Penn State territory.
Watching it in real time, it was hard to understand how he held onto the ball. I thought he didn’t. He couldn’t believe it, either.
“I honestly can’t tell you,” Allen said with a laugh. “I felt it into my hands and I got popped and started spinning. Once I slammed down, I felt the ball against my chest and realized I still had it.”
Not many can take a shot like that and hang onto the ball. It goes to show how dependable big No. 11 is as a receiver.
Heck, that was all in the first 30 seconds of the game.
His second reception game in the red zone as the Huskers looked to punch it in. It was refreshing to see Oz have the amount of targets Saturday and in 2020 as a whole.
Last season, Oz caught seven passes. He has seven receptions through Nebraska’s first three games. He only had nine career catches entering this season.
The former Husky star has shown through the first three games that he’s one of, if not the most dependable receiver the Huskers have.
As for the Huskers’ quarterback situation, the change to McCaffrey felt needed and there seemed to be a fresh breath on offense against the Nittany Lions.
Oz has said in multiple interviews in the past that he doesn’t care if it’s McCaffrey or Adrian Martinez back there, because they’re both great players and he trusts them both.
However, there’s a certain enjoyment playing with a cat like McCaffrey. No matter what, there’s always a chance to hit big, like Allen’s first catch against Penn State.
“With Luke, you have to be ready for anything,” Allen pointed out. “He’s the type of quarterback that if you’re outside of him and he starts to take off, you have to stay alive on the outside because he could very well dump it off to you. He’s very savy when he gets to the perimeter.”
As the game wore on, though, doubt crept in. Part of the learning curve with the Huskers will be how to step on the throat and not let a team back up.
Penn State got back up.
A quarterback change seemed to rejuvenate the Nittany Lions as Penn State outscored Nebraska 17-3 in the second half.
For an 0-3 team at the time, they sure didn’t play like it.
“They were a very tough team and good on defense,” Allen said. “A lot of times I found myself getting to the right run fits, but they were athletic enough to jump around blocks and that makes it tough to work my technique.
“I’ll look at it on film and it will be tough for me to say I had a good game. These teams won’t get any less athletic so it’s something I have to dial into.”
Nebraska’s offense seemed to stall out in the second half, often conservative at times. As the Huskers have success in games like this, it will surely improve.
Winning breeds confidence and making the right plays. It starts at the bottom and this was the foundation.
Plus, seeing the Blackshirts deny Penn State at the goal line twice in the fourth quarter wasn’t bad, either.
“It felt like a long time coming,” Allen said. “We needed that to happen. We’ve been in too many games where that situation ends poorly for us. It was awesome to see the defense step up. Those are my brothers out there and some of my best friends.”
Penn State ran more than 90 offensive plays and picked up more than 500 yards. Don’t just judge the 500 yards. Penn State worked very hard with poor starting field position on most of its drives.
When the game was on the line and the Huskers needed stops, the Blackshirts got it done.
There was just enough time left for the Husker offense to pull out the victory formation and the celebration ensued.
McCaffrey took a knee and gave out a celebratory scream while finding the tallest guy on the field. McCaffrey hugged Allen with a sense of celebration and surely, relief.
“I turned around and saw Luke and knew this meant a lot to him,” Allen explained. “He’s going to do great things for us for awhile and hopefully doesn’t leave for the NFL too soon.”
I’ll second that.
RICHARD RHODEN can be reached at email@example.com.