Opponent helps Lions get well

Commentary

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Somebody brought up the last-minute onside kick that Penn State didn’t recover, and Nick Scott smiled.

“I decided to make it a little more interesting,” the Nittany Lions’ senior safety said after Penn State, despite giving Indiana an extra breath with 49 seconds to play, finally put away the Hoosiers, 33-28, on Saturday at blustery Memorial Stadium.

The sequence typified how Penn State never totally shook the Hoosiers.

“Every time it seemed like we had the game in control,” James Franklin said, “they’d battle their way back in.”

Truth is, with the exception of the fourth quarter, the Nittany Lions were never really in outright control.

Fortunately for them, they were playing Indiana, a team that often finds ways to lose and did again Saturday.

Consider: The Hoosiers moved the ball up and down the field en route to 554 yards while racking up 32 first downs and running an incredible 100 offensive plays — a single-game record number for a Penn State opponent.

But each time Indiana threatened, the Hoosiers would commit a costly penalty, or call a questionable play, or run out of time.

In that regard, Indiana was a most gracious host.

The Nittany Lions, meanwhile, were doing their part to keep both teams in the game.

Penn State dropped its usual five passes and fumbled four times, losing one.

“I don’t think I’ve ever played in a game that windy,” James Franklin said, “and it showed up in special teams and our passing game.”

On the maddening level of dropped passes — bringing the season total to more than 20 – Franklin said, “We’ll discuss that again this week.”

Although they made some of the game’s biggest plays on special teams — busting kickoff returns of 94 and 58 yards along with forcing a fumble that swung second-half momentum — the Lions’ collective special teams were anything but.

KJ Hamler dropped two punts, Koa Farmer didn’t field a kickoff and Tariq Castro-Fields stumbled into returner DeAndre Thompkins. The Lions managed to recover all four of those loose balls.

The winds gusted but “that’s no excuse,” Hamler said. “The ball touches your hands, you’re supposed to catch it. That’s on me.”

Other not-so-special moments came when the Lions had their fake punt attempt blown up for a 10-yard loss, which gave Indiana possession at midfield en route to a 14-7 lead, along with having an extra point blocked and allowing the Hoosiers to recover the late onside kick.

Franklin also noted that punter Blake Gillikin “is in little bit of a slump,” which has affected the Lions’ field position.

“We made some big plays (on special teams),” Franklin said. “Their punt returner has three career touchdowns, and we kept him out of the game. We were able to create a turnover and had a huge kickoff return.

“But obviously,” he added, “we’ve got some things to clean up.”

The offense, this time passing while trying to run out the clock with a 33-21 lead, turned the ball over to Indiana on downs but got enough out of Trace McSorley over the course of the game (327 yards of total offense) to escape.

“When we catch the ball, we’re in rhythm, and we move the ball … pretty much on anybody,” Franklin said. “When we we’re inconsistent catching the ball, we have a hard time getting into rhythm. We have to be more consistent with our passing game.”

Other than the onside kick that made Penn State defend four more plays, Penn State’s defense stood up stronger in the second half than it has at times this season until Indiana scored in the last minute to cut the lead to 33-28.

The uneven body of work across all three phases was enough to make Franklin balk when asked if the Lions made progress.

“It’s hard to say that,” he said, “but we battled.”

That they did and in doing so, they snapped their two-game losing streak, thus avoiding the season taking a direct southern descent.

But compared with how the Penn State camp has felt since September, nobody was complaining about being 6-2.

“Heads were down (after Ohio State and Michigan State), but we all have each other’s backs and pick each other up,” offensive tackle Ryan Bates said. “This is exactly what we needed. There were some execution issues, but we put up 33 points, and we’re back on track.”

We’ll have to take his word for it.

Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or nrudel@altoonamirror.com.

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