After shooting themselves in the foot repeatedly with penalties, turnovers, and missed field goals throughout the late afternoon and early evening Saturday, Penn State’s Nittany Lions had their season-opening game against Indiana come down to a lengthy review on a potential game-winning two-point conversion in overtime.
The referee and the replay official viewed the tape for several minutes before ruling that Hoosiers quarterback Michael Penix’s dive and right-handed stretch to brush the football against the pylon was a successful play, and the eighth-ranked Nittany Lions lost, 36-35, at Memorial Stadium in Bloomington, Ind.
Fans of Nittany Nation will argue that a frame-by-frame examination of Penix’s lunge will show that the ball touched the white out-of-bounds line a millimeter away from the pylon. But the officials ruled otherwise, and the Hoosiers broke a 42-game losing streak to Top 10 teams with their first win over one since 1987.
“I see the Jumbotron. I talk to the guys up in the booth,” Penn State head coach James Franklin said. “From what I was told, it could have gone either way. But if it’s something that could have gone either way, then the play stands. I didn’t see it. I haven’t seen any film.”
But in reality, Penn State had more than enough chances to win the game, undermining itself with three turnovers, 10 penalties, three missed field goals, and numerous mental errors.
Perhaps the most glaring mistake came late in the fourth quarter. The Lions, leading 21-20, had stopped the Hoosiers on fourth down and took over at the Indiana 14 with 1 minute, 47 seconds to play. On first down, sophomore Devyn Ford took a handoff and appeared not to notice that Indiana’s defense was allowing him to score immediately.
Ford took one step over the goal line when he realized he should have stopped sooner. Only 5 seconds were taken off the clock, and the Hoosiers went 75 yards in seven plays and scored on Penix’s 1-yard sneak with 22 seconds to play. Penix then worked a successful draw play for the two-point conversion that tied the game at 28.
Franklin said he did not want to make the result about one play but later added, "Well, what we wanted to do was get as much as you can and get down, OK? That’s the situation. We’ve covered it. We went through it during the game, but again, it was a bunch of situations that came up.”
Tight end Pat Freiermuth, who scored Penn State’s first TD of the season on a 2-yard pass from Sean Clifford, said the game did not come down to one play.
“That’s when it comes back to attention to details,” he said. “We made three turnovers. That just can’t happen. I talked to Devyn and told him to stay off social media. Put your head down, and I’m going to have your back.”
Incredibly, Penn State did have a chance to win it after Penix’s regulation touchdown, but Jordan Stout’s 57-yard field-goal try, which would have tied his program record, fell less than a yard short of the crossbar with 3 seconds left.
Clifford got off to a miserable start, throwing two awful interceptions that gave 10 points to the Hoosiers. But he came on in the second half, particularly with his legs, scoring on a 35-yard run and finishing with a career-high 119 yards in 17 carries. Through the air, he went 24-of-35 for 238 yards and three touchdowns, including a 9-yard pass to freshman Parker Washington for the first touchdown of overtime.
“I don’t want anyone else to take this loss. This one is on me,” Clifford said. “That first half, two turnovers, unacceptable, and both completely on me. I just feel like I definitely could have played better. I will play better, and I know that. But it’s just obviously a tough loss.”
The Hoosiers answered in the extra period with Penix’s 9-yard pass to Whop Philyor and, after a timeout, Indiana coach Tom Allen put his chips all in and went for the two-point conversion.
Penn State outgained Indiana, 488-211, ran 25 more offensive plays and held the ball for just over 40 minutes. But there were just too many mistakes to overcome, especially the penalties, three of which were particularly egregious.
A 15-yard offensive pass interference penalty against Freiermuth in the third quarter moved Penn State back to the Indiana 30, and a subsequent 47-yard field goal attempt by Jake Pinegar, who doinked a 25-yard field goal at the end of the first half off the left upright, was wide left.
A fourth-quarter targeting call resulted in the ejection of linebacker Jesse Luketa and nullified a Penn State fumble recovery, a drive that ended on a 49-yard field goal for Charles Campbell. Then on Indiana’s final drive of regulation, defensive end Adisa Isaac cost the Lions 15 yards by grabbing Penix’s face mask on a sack.
“In my six years at Penn State and 10 years of being a head coach, we have not been a team to get penalties, and we have not been a team to get turnovers,” Franklin said. “Tonight we had both. We had 10 penalties for 100 yards, which is very uncharacteristic of us.”