UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- The subject would always flip back to the team's mood. Penn State coach Bill O'Brien, who normally wears his emotions under several layers of sleeves, would be talking about something else -- tight ends, for instance -- but he couldn't escape this time, always circling back to the awful feeling that attends this 23-20 overtime loss to Nebraska.
"This," he said, "is a tough night for us."
It was senior night. It was cold and winds were circling and snow was falling. It was as State College of a night as you could ask for, especially because the game went to overtime. Four of the past five games at Beaver Stadium have extended past the fourth quarter. So the night followed a natural pattern, until the end.
When the ball sailed off Nebraska kicker Pat Smith's foot through the uprights Saturday night, pure from 42 yards, something about the picture was off.
Overtime games at Beaver Stadium don't end like this.
Before, they always ended with a Penn State victory. Penn State (6-5, 3-4) won against Wisconsin in the snow last year, against Michigan on some insane receptions in October and against Illinois with a bullet pass to Kyle Carter three weeks ago.
"We'd been there before," offensive guard Miles Dieffenbach said. "We've had a lot of game-winning drives. But we just didn't capitalize."
With 4:30 left in the fourth, Penn State was coming off a defensive possession in which linebackers Mike Hull and Brandon Bell stopped Nebraska quarterback Ron Kellogg III at the 1.
Nebraska (8-3, 5-2) had to settle for a field goal and a tie at 20-20 rather than a go-ahead score.
Here was the opportunity for the offense. Against Michigan and Illinois, the Nittany Lions had responded in similar situations, quarterback Christian Hackenberg showing the poise that belies his freshman status. This time they only got six plays to the Nebraska 37 -- not far enough.
After the defense stalled Nebraska's final opportunity, Penn State got the ball first in overtime.
Three plays and only 5 yards later, kicker Sam Ficken was lined up for a 37-yard field goal with the wind howling. He pushed the ball to the right. Earlier in the game, on Penn State's first touchdown, Ficken missed an extra point.
You only need to check Ficken's Twitter mentions to see where some angry fans place the blame. No one on the team agrees, though.
"I actually didn't even think about that, and I didn't even really look at Sam in the locker room," offensive guard John Urschel said. "Honestly, because this loss is not on Sam in any way, shape or form. There are things we could have done in the game."
In the same way blame shouldn't be black and white, little else about this game was, aside from the score. There were essentially no statistical differences.
Each team had 77 plays. Nebraska finished with 360 total yards, Penn State with 387. Each team had a run-pass ratio of about 2 to 1. Nebraska messed up by fumbling the ball twice, once on the goal line. Penn State messed up by throwing an interception and allowing a 99-yard kickoff return touchdown to Kenny Bell.
All that mattered was that Penn State lost. Mistakes didn't kill the Nittany Lions, like in the past. This was just one of those games that went the other way. The heroic final drive didn't materialize.
"I feel like it's tough," Hackenberg said. "You can't go out and win them all. You can try, and I think we all gave our best effort."
Hackenberg acknowledged that he wanted to win this game for the seniors. They won't get to play at Beaver Stadium again, left with the paralyzing image of Smith's kick going through the uprights.
Urschel said his heart sank when he watched that play unfold. He also said he has five years of memories from Beaver Stadium to draw from.
During the game, Urschel tried not think about the inevitability that his college career is coming to an end, but couldn't help it. Carson, a senior, was the same way, reflective.
After the loss, he recalled his attitude as he waited on the sidelines at the beginning of overtime. The lights were still shining, Beaver Stadium was shaking, and the air was so frigid it stung your skin.
"I was telling people," Carson said, "'it doesn't get any better than this.'"
“I was telling people,” Carson said, “‘it doesn’t get any better than this.’”
Mark Dent: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05. First Published November 23, 2013 5:15 PM