BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Penn State rallied to take a two-score lead in the fourth quarter Saturday against Indiana, and the question was whether the Nittany Lions could finally finish a game, something they had failed to do in each of their previous two contests.
Well, it wasn't pretty, with some questionable play-calling again late in the game and then a failed attempt to recover an onside kick, but the 18th-ranked Lions pulled through and captured a 33-28 victory over the Hoosiers at windy Memorial Stadium to break a two-game losing streak.
Trailing, 21-20, late in the third quarter, Penn State (5-2, 2-2 Big Ten) grabbed a 33-21 lead on a pair of touchdown runs by Trace McSorley, who had his second 100-yard rushing game of the season and surpassed the 10,000-yard mark in career total yards.
But there are no gimmes these days with the Nittany Lions. Their defense held the frenetic offense of the Hoosiers (4-4, 1-4) off the board until they scored a touchdown with 49 seconds remaining on a 21-yard pass from Peyton Ramsey to J-Shun Harris.
Special teams, however, gave Indiana one more chance when Nick Scott muffed an onside kick and Indiana recovered. The kick was a do-over of a previous one that was recovered by the Lions, but did not count because head coach James Franklin called timeout a second before the ball was struck.
"We weren't aligned correctly," Franklin explained.
But the defense came through again, with John Reid making the tackle on the Hoosiers' 100th and final play of the game at the Penn State 44, and the Lions could exhale.
"Obviously, we all want it to be pretty, but, at the end of the day, you've got to find a way to get wins," Franklin said. "There's a lot of different ways to do it. At the end of the day, we want to win, and it's not always going to be the textbook example."
There were few things to be found in the textbook the way Penn State played in a steady 20-mph win. The Nittany Lions continued to be plagued by dropped passes – five on Saturday – and also muffed three punts and two kickoffs, including the onside one.
Penn State gave up a season-high 554 yards, but claimed three turnovers, including a fumble recovery and an interception by Scott, and posted six sacks, four of them coming from former Imhotep Charter star Shaka Toney.
"Absolutely, we had a finishing mentality," said Toney, a redshirt sophomore. "Our defensive line coach, Sean Spencer, puts a lot of pressure on us and makes sure we finish games. As a defensive line, we pride ourselves on always finishing the game, whether it's sacks, [tackles for loss], whatever we have to do."
The Nittany Lions trailed, 14-7, after one quarter, but came back to lead, 17-14, at the half as backup quarterback and Indiana product Tommy Stevens threw a 23-yard touchdown pass to tight end Pat Freiermuth and Jake Pinegar kicked a 27-yard field goal.
Pinegar's 32-yard field goal made it 20-14 before the Hoosiers took their final lead on a 3-yard run by freshman Stevie Scott, who rushed for 138 yards on 26 carries and scored twice.
Then fifth-year senior Jonathan Thomas, on only his second kickoff return of the season, brought the kick back 94 yards to the Indiana 5, and McSorley scored on the next play to give the Lions the lead for good at 26-21. Special teams provided a gift when safety Jonathan Sutherland forced a fumble on a punt return and Nick Scott recovered at the Hoosiers 32.
Penn State needed just five plays to score, with McSorley going over from the 4 with 10 minutes, 25 seconds to play.
The Lions later regained possession with 4:35 to play, a similar situation to games against Ohio State and Michigan State when they were unable to run much time off the clock. They didn't do very well this time either, calling three pass plays, two of which were incomplete.
The Hoosiers needed 15 plays to score on their next possession and had a chance. But the Lions held them off.
"I think it was great for us to get back in the win column and get that confidence back in ourselves, be able to come on the road in the Big Ten," McSorley said. "Every time we come here, it's a tough environment. We beat a good team. "