LINCOLN, Neb. — For a few tense minutes, Penn State players, coaches and fans waited and hoped for a reversal of the call.
On the play in question, tight end Matt Lehman stretched out with the ball in his hands at the goal line, losing the pigskin in the process. Nebraska recovered with 7:39 remaining in the game, and the play was ruled a fumble on the field, but it would be reviewed.
Replays showed it was a bang-bang play, but Lehman appeared to have crossed the plane of the end zone with possession of the football. However, to the disbelief of many Nittany Lion faithful, after further review, the play stood.
Penn State never possessed the ball in Nebraska territory after the call and lost, 32-23.
“We thought it was over the goal line,” coach Bill O’Brien said. “[The referees] did not think they could reverse it though. There wasn’t enough evidence to reverse the call.”
John O’Neill, the game’s referee, was the one who announced the call to the 85,527 fans at Memorial Stadium. But in a statement released to the media after the game, O’Neill said the decision to not overturn the call was not made by officials on the field.
“The ruling on the field was it was a fumble short of the goal line,” O’Neill said in the statement. “It went to the replay official and the replay official said it stood, based on the views he had.”
Nebraska (8-2, 5-1 Big Ten) coach Bo Pelini said he thought his team was “kind of fortunate” the call on the field was a fumble.
“I know one thing that helps you in that situation is how they called it on the field,” Pelini said. “You have to have indisputable evidence to overrule it, and something that is that bang-bang usually ends up with how they called it on the field.”
The play was the biggest turning point of the contest and was part of a dismal second half for Penn State (6-4, 4-2). The Cornhuskers outscored the Lions 23-6 in the final 30 minutes and erased a 14-point halftime deficit less than six minutes into the third quarter.
Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez accounted for 275 total yards (171 passing, 104 rushing), 178 of which came in the second half. The junior also threw what turned out to be the game-deciding touchdown to Jamal Turner with 10:57 remaining.
And though Martinez lost a fumble in the red zone early in the fourth quarter, he, along with running backs Ameer Abdullah and Imani Cross combined for 267 rushing yards. Cornerback Stephon Morris blamed the defense’s struggles more for the loss than any call the officials made.
“We could’ve got some more third-down stops, we could have stopped Martinez, we could’ve stopped the run,” Morris said. “You can’t leave the game in the referees’ hands, and we all know that. As a player, you can’t leave the game in the referees’ hands. They’re not perfect, nobody’s perfect. That’s just on us.”
Matt McGloin — who was outspoken about the Lehman play after the contest — threw for more yards than Martinez, but didn’t have his best game. Penn State’s signal caller threw for 240 yards, one touchdown and an interception.
McGloin’s pick was one of three Penn State turnovers; the other two came in the red zone. Along with Lehman’s controversial cough up, running back Zach Zwinak lost the rock inside Nebraska’s 20-yard line in the first quarter. The fumble was a sour spot for the redshirt sophomore, who ran for 141 yards and a 50-yard score.
“Zach is twisting, trying to gain extra yards, I think he gained eight yards on the play. And Matt Lehman is just trying to make a play,” O’Brien said. “At the end of the day, you need to come away with scores there when you’re playing Nebraska, who is probably going to score some points. That was not good on our part.”