STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – One week after its stunning loss at Minnesota, Penn State repeated some of its troubling issues Saturday against Indiana – spotty secondary play, missed tackles, and some strange play calls on a red-zone trip.
But the ninth-ranked Nittany Lions executed well enough in other areas to ease the concerns of their fans, who were nervous about how they’d respond, and gutted out a 34-27 victory over the Hoosiers to give their showdown next week against No. 2 Ohio State major significance.
A sun-splashed Beaver Stadium crowd of 106,323 saw the Lions (9-1, 6-1 Big Ten) get two touchdown runs and a scoring pass from quarterback Sean Clifford, score 14 points off special-teams blunders by the Hoosiers (7-3, 4-3), and pull off a 9-minute, fourth-quarter drive that put the game out of reach.
Clifford, who completed 11 of 23 passes for 179 yards and rushed for 55 yards in 10 carries, had heard concerns about how Penn State would bounce back and whether the team’s confidence had been shattered after its first loss of 2019.
“I heard, ‘Now they’re falling off, they’re going to lose confidence,’ ” Clifford said. “For me, I watched the tape. Yeah, I was pretty [ticked] off at what I was doing, but at the same time, every single throw that I missed or read that I made wrong, I just looked back like, ‘Yeah I definitely could have done that better.’
“If anything, in a loss like that to a great Minnesota team, I had more confidence coming into this week because of how much preparation we had and how much I knew I could have gotten back. There was no lack of confidence this week, and I told the guys that. They responded really well.”
It wasn’t a perfect performance. The Lions secondary gave up 371 yards to the No. 1 passing offense in the Big Ten, for a two-week yield of 710 yards. Indiana’s Peyton Ramsey went 31 of 41, a performance that included completions of 38, 42, 39, and 46 yards.
“We’ve got to get better,” head coach James Franklin said. Indiana "did a really good job with that. Can we get better there? There’s no doubt about it. Obviously we’ll work on that a great deal, but the most important stat is that we found a way to get a win.”
Then there were the missed tackles, which were especially evident as the Hoosiers chipped away at a 27-14 deficit with Logan Justus’ 25-yard field goal and Ramsey’s second 1-yard quarterback sneak of the game with 10 minutes, 45 seconds to play that made it a three-point game.
The Nittany Lions, who had run only nine plays to Indiana’s 32 in the second half, needed to come up with points and run some time off the clock. They satisfied both wishes with one of their most-clutch drives of the season.
The march took 9:01 and covered 75 yards in 18 plays. The Lions called 16 running plays during the drive, the last 11 in a row, and converted two third downs and a pair of fourth downs -- one by backup quarterback Will Levis -- along the way. Clifford rushed the final yard on fourth-and-goal with 1:44 remaining.
“You’ve just got to be physical,” tight end Nick Bowers said. “You have that mindset that you have to block and move people. They’re big guys, too. But I think we like that. We like to be in those four-minute situations knowing that we are controlling the game, and I think we did a good job of doing that.”
The Hoosiers took over with no timeouts and drove to the Penn State 4. Justus kicked a 27-yard field goal with 13 seconds left, but linebacker Jesse Luketa secured the onside kick to clinch the win.
Indiana’s special-teams play led to two Lions touchdowns. Whop Philyor muffed a bouncing punt after the Lions’ first drive of the game that Penn State’s Jan Johnson recovered at the 27, and Clifford threw a 12-yard pass to Bowers in the end zone.
In the third quarter, with Indiana lined up in an unusually spread punt formation, up back Peyton Hendershot bobbled the snap on a planned fake and was tackled for a 4-yard loss at the Indiana 40. Two plays later, Journey Brown, who rushed for 100 yards on 21 carries, dashed 35 yards for the touchdown.
The Nittany Lions now await their trip to Columbus and their annual duel with Ohio State, a team that has defeated them the last two years by one point each time. Clifford, a Cincinnati native, is ready.