It all came down to inches at the very end of Penn State’s first game in 10 months.
On first glance, the Nittany Lions’ improbable comeback and possible save in Indiana was undone by a kicker coming up just short in regulation and an enemy quarterback’s dive to the pylon in overtime.
There were so many twists and turns in No. 8 Penn State’s stunning loss Saturday in this pandemic-delayed season-opener in Bloomington, Indiana. Enough from just the beginning of the fourth quarter to the end of this more-than-four-hour affair.
But, when it was finally over, Penn State’s Jordan Stout was just short on a game-winning 58-yard field goal in regulation and Indiana quarterback Michael Penix’s desperate lunge for the winning 2-point conversion was barely in bounds to win it.
Those plays cemented a devastating loss, and wiped away one of the grittiest recovery acts by another QB.
But, truly enough, the Nittany Lions lost to Indiana for only the second time ever because of an uncharacteristic litany of mistakes from beginning to end.
Indiana 36, Penn State 35.
Even so, Sean Clifford, the Lions’ junior quarterback and leader, nearly rescued it all. He stayed composed after losing his starting running back earlier in the week and then his backup in the first quarter.
He took what an inspired Hoosier defense gave him even if it wasn’t what he wanted. Clifford ran 17 times because his receivers weren’t open or his blockers didn’t give him enough time to throw.
He overcame his own awful throws early to lead his team back from perhaps its worst half of football in two years.
He ran 35 yards for a touchdown, threw 60 yards for a late lead and then expertly found another receiver for the potential winning points in overtime.
He produced 357 total yards (119 rushing) and hit on nearly every opportunity down the stretch.
It wasn’t to be, it turned out, because of too many gaffes earlier in the day, from offense to special teams to game management from the coaches. From three turnovers to 10 penalties.
Now, they must somehow prepare for powerful Ohio State in Beaver Stadium, staring at an 0-2 start.
“I thought our defense played pretty well. They were in some tough situations with the turnovers. Without the turnovers I think it’s a completely different story,” head coach James Franklin said.
“To me, it’s turnovers and penalties. I hope you would agree that over the last six years that’s very uncharacteristic for us. We’ve got to get those things fixed.”
Barely overcoming rough start
Things couldn’t have gone much worse for Penn State’s offense and special teams in the first half.
Overthrown passes and bad interceptions. Fumbled opportunities. A most untimely injury.
And a field goal boinking off an upright, for good measure.
How do you double your opponent in total yards and still give up 17 straight points?
How do you rely on your third-string running back before the first half of the season’s first game is even over?
And to think that Penn State truly began this day with a calm, organized and precise drive the first time it got the ball. Clifford completed each of his three passes, the final one a quick-pop off a nice fake on fourth down at the goal line.
Junior Pat Freiermuth caught it to put the Nittany Lions up 7-0 and set the program’s all-time touchdown mark for a tight end.
Then, quite surprisingly, everything went wrong.
The Lions fumbled a punt and kickoff return, their running backs put the ball on the ground twice more — and they were fortunate to get all of them back.
But then Clifford inexplicably sailed two passes far over his receivers for interceptions, the second one gifting the Hoosiers a touchdown.
And backup quarterback Will Levis, who only saw two plays all day, committed a penalty on his first and fumbled the ball away near the goal line on his second.
To complete the mini-disaster, the Lions recovered a Hoosier fumble with two seconds left in the first half only to see the chip shot field goal bounce off an upright.
They outgained Indiana in total yards (173-87) and yet somehow were losing by 10 and had given away all momentum. It was their worst half of football, quite possibly, since getting crushed at Michigan in the 2018 season.
Certainly, Penn State’s defense was not at fault. It stayed steady and applied continual pressure, holding impressive runner Stevie Scott in check and increasing the heat on Penix, never allowing him a passing rhythm until the end.
By the time the fourth quarter started, the Lions had actually tripled Indiana in total yards — and still trailed.
For all of their miscues, the Lions also suffered some tough breaks. The biggest was losing tailback Noah Cain in the first quarter to a lower-body injury. That was after arguably the deepest running back room in the nation was working without starter Journey Brown, who may miss the season with an undisclosed injury.
Special teams was a particular thorn for the Lions, too. Reliable kicker Jake Pinegar missed both of his field goal attempts while Indiana’s Charles Campbell was true on his career-long 49-yarder.