John Papuchis walked into the Nebraska locker room at halftime Saturday and, as the defensive coordinator put it, was “weirded out.”
After a first half in which his defense surrendered 255 yards, looked confused in handling Penn State’s up-tempo attack and had one player yelling and pointing fingers at his head coach, well, let’s just say Papuchis was expecting something different than what he encountered.
“They were so calm. They just kind of said, ‘Let’s go do it again,’” Papuchis said, referring to players’ plans to rally from yet another double-digit deficit.
“They were not fazed at all, and I’m thinking, ‘We didn’t play very good that first half, I don’t know if it’s going to be as easy as you think it is, to just go out and do it again.’”
But they did.
Daimion Stafford – the senior safety who television cameras caught screaming obscenities at head coach Bo Pelini on the sideline – returned an interception 22 yards to set up a third-quarter touchdown, then recovered a fourth-quarter fumble in the end zone, thwarting a Penn State scoring threat.
Those turnovers in No. 18 Nebraska’s 32-23 victory helped turn the tide after a tumultuous first half for the Blackshirts.
“One thing I talked to our guys about after the game – and I don’t mind sharing it – both us as coaches and them as players, when things get chaotic, we’ve got to stay even-keeled,” Papuchis said. “We learned that lesson today. Things got a little bit hairy, at times, in the first half. But we got it corrected, we got it fixed.
“We hugged and made up at halftime.”
But wasn’t that Stafford and Pelini that were …
“Nah,” Papuchis said, smiling, “they were just talking about how much they like each other.”
Stafford didn’t do postgame interviews, and Pelini didn’t address the situation, but it’s possible that sideline exchange was the result of some defensive communication, or lack thereof. Penn State was moving fast, and Nebraska coaches weren’t getting calls in quickly enough.
“They started running a lot of hurry-up and we were really flustered by it because we were trying to get a call,” Nebraska defensive end Cameron Meredith said. “At times we were still standing up when the ball was hiked.”
And for that, Pelini accepted blame.
“Me, personally, I put our guys in a bad situation a couple times because I didn't get them the call quick enough or I didn't realize they were going up on the ball quick enough,” Pelini said. “I didn't handle the tempo good enough in a few aspects in that (second) quarter.”
Said Papuchis: “Their tempo affected us in the first half. There are certain things we’d like to take back and do better. We needed to settle down and just play. It shouldn’t take getting to halftime and being down by 14 points to settle in and play.”
But it’s better than not settling in, which Nebraska eventually did.
“Once they showed their hand a little bit and what plays they were going to run when they were going fast,” Papuchis said, “it became a little bit easier.”
Stafford’s interception – one of three turnovers the Blackshirts forced against a Penn State team that doesn’t commit many – swayed momentum.
“He jumped the route and saw it coming, made a great play,” Papuchis said. “It was huge.”
Nebraska dialed up more pressure on Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin in the second half, too, partly because the Blackshirts were forcing more third-and-long situations. The Huskers sacked him three times, including Meredith’s safety when McGloin was flagged for intentional grounding from the end zone.
Nebraska limited Penn State to 136 yards after halftime.
“It’s like a broken record. I say the same thing every week,” Papuchis said. “Our guys have guts, they compete, they take the halftime adjustments and they play better in the second half. Now, we have to figure out how to be better coaches and players in the first half, and it starts with coaching.”