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Like & Don’t Like: Don’t talk about moral victories. Lions 0-4 after bad loss to mediocre team

Photo by Penn State Athletics: Keyvone Lee scores on a 31-yard TD run.

There’s always a lot to like and not like during a football game. This is my comprehensive list of things I liked and did not like, starting with the most important plays of the game, then going through the contest from the beginning.

Don’t like: Don’t tell me about any moral victory just because of the good second-half comeback. Penn State lost and is 0-4. It lost to a Nebraska team that’s mediocre at best. The Nittany Lions’ defense and Sean Clifford were awful in the first half. I know there will be a lot of talk in the coming days about how the Lions found themselves in the second half, but the bottom line is this team was in the top 10 in the country to start the season and is now 0-4. Moral victory because Lions fought to make it close? Nope. Not this one.

Like: Now, that doesn’t mean you come out of this game hating everything the Lions did. There were positives in the second half, of course, and it all starts with Will Levis. He is now the team’s starting QB. He has to be. There’s just no way James Franklin can turn back to Clifford, who once again killed the team with bad turnovers before Levis was charged with trying to come back.

Like: We absolutely saw good heart, character and leadership from Penn State this week. That was in question after the lackluster effort against Maryland, but the team didn’t lose Saturday because it wasn’t interested. It lost because it played lousy football in the first half.

Like: We’ve probably seen the end of the Sean Clifford era as the starting QB.

Don’t like: It’s a shame for Clifford, who has worked his tail off and is a good, respected team leader. He just has not played well enough to keep the job, and unless Levis gets banged up, there will be no reason for Franklin to go back to Clifford.

Like: Penn State’s defense was good in the second half after yet another bad first half.

Don’t like: PSU gave up at least 30 points for a fifth consecutive game, the first time that’s happened in school history.

Like: Levis showed a ton of composure in leading the offense on some good drives.

Don’t like: The playcalling in the red zone by Kirk Ciarrocca was pretty poor. Two fades on first and second down the one drive, then the second drive with the game on the line ending after PSU got to first-and-goal at the 9. Ciarrocca made some good adjustments at times, but those red-zone mistakes proved very costly.

Like: Late in the game, Levis came up with a big fourth-and-5 throw, rolling to his right and finding KeAndre Lambert-Smith for 11 yards to the Huskers’ 21.

Don’t like: Penn State had first down at the 11, and Levis threw four consecutive incompletions. The passes on first and second down were fades, and PSU just has not been good at those throws for years. It’s amazing how so many offensive coordinators love to call fade passes in those situations, and in this case, it was with an inexperienced QB who hasn’t thrown a lot of passes in his career, let alone those kinds of fades.

Like: The defense held Nebraska to a quick three-and-out, giving the offense one more shot.

FOURTH QUARTER

Don’t like: The Lions’ defense allowed Nebraska to drive the field and eat up 5:27 of clock. The Huskers marched right into scoring position behind their running game, but …

Like: The defense held and got a stop, forcing Nebraska to kick a field goal for a 14-point lead.

Like: I think the decision by Scott Frost to kick the field goal on fourth-and-2 at the 7 was a good one. He could have gone for it and tried to score a game-sealing TD on that drive. But it was a smart call to make it a two-TD game with 10:34 to go.

Love: Will Levis rolled away from pressure to his left and fired a deep ball to wide-open Pat Freiermuth for a 74-yard gain to the 1. Levis’ ability to scramble and keep his head up was impressive to see. It set up a TD that made it a seven-point game with 9:20 left.

Like: Jayson Oweh hit McCaffrey on a first-down throw, and the lame duck pass was picked off by Brandon Smith at the Huskers’ 48.

THIRD QUARTER

Like: Will Levis came out with a sharp throw to KeAndre Lamber-Smith for a 20-yard gain on the first play of the second half. That’s the kind of quick-strike play we need to see a whole lot more of from the PSU offense.

Don’t like: PSU got to midfield right away in the second half but stalled, facing fourth-and-8 from the 39. Why in the world did James Franklin try a 56-yard field goal against the wind there? Even with a make, it’s still a three-score game. The Lions may have had better odds just going for it, although that would have been a bad decision, too. Stout missed short and right, and Nebraska returned it 34 yards for good field position.

Like: Keyvone Lee was running all by himself on a 31-yard TD midway through the third quarter. The run call came against a blitz up the middle, and Lee went right and cruised for the easiest touchdown run you’ll see.

Love: In the end zone, Lee paid tribute to teammate Journey Brown as he held up four fingers, recognizing Brown’s No. 4. It was a really neat moment to see from Lee.

Like: Penn State’s defense got its first three-and-out after the TD, putting the offense right back on the field. Jahan Dotson had a good punt return of 21 yards to start the offense at the 48.

Like: Levis had an 11-yard pass, then ran for 11, 10 and 7 yards on the first four plays of the series to move PSU into scoring position.

Don’t like: The playcalling by Kirk Ciarrocca after PSU got to first-and-goal at the 7 was way too conservative. Levis and Lee ran up the middle for no gains, then Levis tried to scramble up the middle against major pressure and was dropped for a 3-yard loss. That was a great opportunity to cut it to a one-score game, and those runs up the middle — while effective during the series — were doomed to fail once things tightened up inside the 10.

Like: Jake Pinegar improved to 3-for-3 on field goals with a 27-yarder. He entered the day 1-of-4 on the season.

SECOND QUARTER

Don’t like: Clifford had TE Brenton Strange wide open in the back right of the end zone on third-and-11 from the 16. But Clifford didn’t see Strange, then had to throw it away under pressure, so Lions had to settle for a FG.

Don’t like: Right after scoring a TD, the usually reliable Jordan Stout kicked the ball out of bounds to let Nebraska start at the 35. That ended Stout’s streak of 19 consecutive touchbacks.

Don’t like: Brandon Smith was flagged for a personal foul on a rough tackle, giving Nebraska 15 yards instead of having to face a third down.

Hate: On the next play, Penn State’s defense got blistered when Zavier Betts took a jet sweep and raced untouched 45 yards to the end zone.

Hate: Clifford turned it over again as he fumbled while getting sacked, and Deontai Williams returned it 26 yards for a TD. At this point, it was clear that Clifford could no longer continue to play.

Like: James Franklin made the right decision a few minutes later when he pulled Clifford in favor of Will Levis on PSU’s next series.

Like: Caziah Holmes had a terrific 36-yard gain on fourth-and-1 from the PSU 34, busting loose around the left side. The freshman showed good burst through the line on the play.

Like: Levis converted another fourth-and-1 with a tough inside run to set up first down at the Nebraska 19. The QB then hit Pat Freiermuth on a quick throw that turned into a 10-yard gain.

Don’t like: The Lions were about to face fourth-and-goal from the 7, and the guess here is James Franklin would have gone for it down 24-3. But CJ Thorpe was called for unsportsmanlike conduct as he taunted a D-lineman after pancake blocking him. Thorpe losing his cool cost the Lions a chance to even try for a touchdown as it pushed them back 15 yards, and they had to settle for a field goal.

Like: PSU’s defense showed some life with its first stop of the game near midfield.

Don’t like: Jordan Stout’s short punt was returned 25 yards to put the Huskers in business at the PSU 42.

Like: Nebraska stayed aggressive going for it on fourth-and-3 at the PSU 35 with 1:17 left in the half. Up 24-3, the Huskers could have pinned the Lions deep, but they went for it and converted on a 6-yard run by Wan’Dale Robinson.

Like: Luke McCaffrey made a tremendous play, taking a hit and tossing it with his left hand to Marvin Scott, who gained 14 yards to convert third-and-9. McCaffrey’s football IQ was on display throughout the game, and boy, was he impressive.

FIRST QUARTER

Don’t like: Penn State’s defense was terrible on the opening drive. Lions not only allowed a big 25-yard pass play, then they let McCaffrey break free around the left edge for 12 yards to convert a key third-and-10 from the 45. A stop there could have given PSU some much-needed confidence and momentum, but instead the Lions found themselves trailing just a couple minutes later.

Like: Luke McCaffrey could have taken off and run during Nebraska’s first series, but instead he stayed focused downfield and hit Austin Allen for a big 25-yard gain. That was very impressive by McCaffrey.

Like: On that third-down run, McCaffrey started up the middle and then raced out to the left to find open running room. That was a very impressive decision by the freshman QB.

Hate: Sean Clifford made an absolutely horrendous throw for an INT on PSU’s first series. He tried to hit Jahan Dotson on an out to the right and threw the ball inside for an easy pick by Cam Taylor-Britt, who returned it 55 yards to the PSU 15.

Like: PSU’s defense got a stop, or at least that’s how it shows up in the box score, as Nebraska stalled after getting first-and-goal at the 5. Actually, Nebraska gifted the Lions a big break when Kade Warner dropped a pass in the end zone on third down.

Don’t like: Warner was wide open on the play, as PSU’s defense fell asleep and got burnt. The Lions just got lucky he dropped the ball.

Like: Devyn Ford ran the ball well on PSU’s second series, including picking up a key third-and-4 to keep the chains moving.

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Written By

Cory Giger is a 15-year veteran of the Penn State beat and a journalist with 28 years of experience. He has won more than 100 state and national journalism awards during his career, plus he's a voter for the Heisman Trophy in football and Wooden Award in basketball.

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