- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Earlier this week, Nebraska coach Bo Pelini thought Saturday's Penn State game would -- and should -- be canceled.
Running back Ameer Abdullah's mother called him, worried about her son's safety when the team traveled to Beaver Stadium.
And the Cornhuskers were constantly reminded all week of the imbroglio they were about to enter every time they turned on the TV or radio or got on the Internet.
Nebraska got roped into the Penn State sex abuse scandal by mere association as the first team to play the Nittany Lions after the story exploded on the national scene. While the Huskers didn't have to deal with nearly as many distractions as Penn State's players did, this still wasn't a normal week for them by any means.
"You talk to them about it, but the fact is there were times it was hard as a coach," Pelini said. "Obviously, the coverage was all over the place; everywhere you turned, that's where the focus was."
But the Huskers managed to keep their focus on the game. There will be much written about how the Nittany Lions battled through their adversity to acquit themselves well in a strong performance. Don't forget the team that actually earned the 17-14 victory, one that showed plenty of grit on the road.
"You could just feel it before the game," running back Rex Burkhead said. "There was something in the air that let you know you were in a different type of game. We did a terrific job of staying away from those distractions."
Penn State actually outgained the Cornhuskers 375-331 in total yards. Both teams had 21 first downs, and both lost fumbles near midfield to set up touchdowns for the other side. So it was a remarkably even game in many ways. Except when it mattered most.
The Nittany Lions had cut a 17-0 third-quarter deficit to only three points and faced fourth-and-1 at their 37 in the final two minutes. Naturally, they handed the ball to Silas Redd, who had been the Big Ten's best running back in a spectacular October. But Huskers linebacker Lavonte David met him just before the first-down line and pushed Redd backward, a classic mano-a-mano confrontation between two of the league's star players.
One more defensive stand was needed when Penn State got the ball back at its 28 with 49 seconds left. The Lions only got as far as their 46 before running out of time. Nebraska's defensive players were rewarded with their traditional Blackshirts after the Michigan State win but were left black-and-blue in an upset loss last week to Northwestern. They bounced back Saturday.
"We really had to man up," safety Austin Cassidy said. "We had to refocus because we gave up a lot of yards against Northwestern."
Offensive coordinator Tim Beck knew he had to loosen up a Nittany Lions defense that was allowing just 12.4 points per game this season. So he added a few wrinkles, most notably putting Burkhead under center and switching quarterback Taylor Martinez to Burkhead's I-back spot a few times. Burkhead was supposed to throw it twice, but the receivers were covered both times.
"Rex is a great thrower," Abdullah said. "He could play quarterback."
Beck is happy just to see Burkhead run the ball like he did Saturday. A week after a disappointing 69-yard day against Northwestern that had fans wondering if Burkhead was worn down, he ran for 121 yards and a touchdown against one of the nation's top defenses.
"He took it personally," Beck said. "He was very upset at himself after last week's game. I'm proud of him."
The new formations helped, but Nebraska really got going after a listless first quarter when it turned to the option game. Martinez continues to improve his decision-making on the option and made a perfect pitch to Burkhead just before getting dragged to the turf for what turned out to be the decisive touchdown.
"He made some good decisions today," Beck said. "There's some instinct involved in that, but a lot of it is just repetition. He's just got to keep practicing."
The Huskers are lucky that they can just focus on improving in the coming days. They know Penn State has a lot more difficult road ahead. Several of the players expressed empathy for the Lions, and they showed that empathy by joining Penn State in a moving pregame prayer at midfield before the game.
"That helped put everything at ease and let us just play the game," fullback Tyler Legate said. "I feel for those guys, and I hope they get over it."
The road win was big for the Huskers, who lost control of their fate in the Legends Division race with the Northwestern loss. They trail Michigan State by one game in the division and need the Spartans to lose at least once in the final two weeks to earn a trip to Indianapolis. That's assuming Nebraska wins out, and it faces another tall challenge on the road next week at Michigan.
"All we can do is worry about us," Cassidy said.
Or at least now they can.