No. 9 Penn State tops No. 24 Indiana at home
STATE COLLEGE – Penn State came face to face Saturday with a couple of demons that have haunted the program for a few years.
The Nittany Lions slayed those demons in impressive fashion to get back on the winning track.
“We always talk about ending the game on our terms,” quarterback Sean Clifford said, “especially when it’s a 4-minute drive. … It actually turned into a 9-minute drive.”
A remarkable 9 minutes and 1 second, to be exact.
The kind of drive that not only answered a lot of questions plaguing the PSU offense and coaching staff, but one that also sealed the win.
The 75-yard drive lasted 18 plays and ended with Clifford sneaking for a 1-yard touchdown with 1:44 remaining. That huge score gave the No. 9 Nittany Lions a 10-point lead, and they wound up with a 34-27 victory over No. 24 Indiana before 106,323 fans at Beaver Stadium.
“I’m just really proud of our guys, especially the offensive line,” Clifford said.
“We said at the beginning of that drive, ‘Let’s finish it on our terms, let’s win this game the offensive way.’ And we did that.”
The Lions (9-1, 6-1 Big Ten) have had trouble in recent years gaining two or three first downs and holding onto the ball in the final few minutes of games to salt away the clock and secure leads. Those situations require a good 4-minute offense — from playcalling through execution — and Penn State’s ongoing issues have been well chronicled.
Another problem for the program entering Saturday was not letting one loss linger and lead to another defeat the next game. That had happened the previous two years, and the Lions were trying to avoid a repeat Saturday after getting upset last week at Minnesota.
There was a lot of noise outside the program during the week about whether PSU could bounce back from the loss with a strong showing. Well, it wasn’t exactly a strong showing from start to finish, but the big finish by the offense locked up the victory on a day the defense struggled.
“When you spend 95 percent of the time with the team and we all have the same goal and same mindset, you tend to not hear stuff like that,” running back Journey Brown said of the outside noise. “Social media of course is always going to be there and the media and stuff, but they never bother us none at all.”
The teams combined for 31 points in the first quarter — PSU held a 17-14 lead — and the Hoosiers battled tough throughout the second half. Their passing game gave the Lions fits, just as Minnesota’s did last week.
Penn State appeared to be in control when Brown broke free for a 35-yard TD run to make it 27-14 with 10:24 left in the third quarter.
Indiana (7-3, 4-3) came right back, though, with a field goal on its next drive and then got a stop on defense. The Hoosiers, ranked in the top 25 for the first time in 25 years, drove 91 yards and got a 1-yard TD keeper from quarterback Peyton Ramsey to pull within 27-24 with 10:45 left to play.
That’s when Penn State’s offense took control with the 9-minute drive.
“For our offense to go on an 18-play drive, I haven’t been around many of them,” coach James Franklin said. (An) 18-play drive at a critical point in the game.”
With standout receiver KJ Hamler sidelined after an earlier hit to the head, the Lions had to play most of the game without one of their best offensive weapons. So when it came time to try and seal the game on the big drive late, Penn State turned to its running game.
Of the 18 plays, 16 were runs, mostly by Brown and Clifford. On third-and-9 from the 42, Clifford scrambled 10 yards for a huge first down.
Penn State earlier had run a wildcat play using backup quarterback Will Levis taking the snap. It didn’t work well the first time inside the 10-yard line early on, but Levis got some more opportunities late in the game.
He was called upon on third-and-2 at the Indiana 25 and picked up 1 yard. Franklin decided to go for it on fourth-and-1, and Levis gained 3 yards to keep the drive going.
Clifford ran six yards to set up first-and-goal at the 6. But after three plays netted five yards, the Lions faced fourth down at the 1.
Franklin made the call to go for it.
“It was the right decision,” Franklin said after the game.
He then asked the assembled media, “Why?” and several reporters responded with the answer he expected of, “Because it worked.”
The coach had made that exact same point earlier in the week about getting criticized sometimes even though the call is the right one but the play ultimately fails.
This one didn’t fail.
Clifford busted in from a yard out for a 34-24 lead with 1:44 to go.
“Most importantly, we were able to kind of wear them down as the game went on with our running backs and our tight ends,” Franklin said.
The coach has heard a lot of chatter over the years about not using a fullback, which was a staple of Penn State’s for decades under Joe Paterno. Franklin explained Saturday that using two tight ends provides essentially the same thing as using a fullback from a blocking standpoint.