BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — It was a far-from-perfect four quarters for Penn State as they capitalized on quality special teams play to outlast Indiana, 33-28, at Memorial Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
The win serves as the bounce-back victory the Nittany Lions desperately needed coming off back-to-back losses to Ohio State and Michigan State.
“It was a big win,” cornerback Amani Oruwariye said. “This is a tough environment. We’re always in a tough game when we come here and play them. We knew it was going to be a tough game and to get the win, we’re just excited. To win in this conference is hard.”
Penn State and Indiana battled back and forth as both capitalized on opportunities and miscues.
“Every time it seemed like we had the game in control and were able to put them away, they would battle back in,” James Franklin said. “They seem to battle everybody like that.”
Ultimately, special teams pushed Penn State to victory, but it was also special teams that nearly cost them throughout the game. The Nittany Lions muffed two punts, yet recovered both, and they struggled punting during what was a blustery afternoon.
The return game is what set the tone, as KJ Hamler took the opening kickoff 58 yards to set the Nittany Lions up with excellent field position to start the game. Penn State would find the end zone on a 1-yard Miles Sanders touchdown run.
And while that kickoff return got Penn State started on the right foot, it was a 94-yard kickoff return by Johnathan Thomas in the third quarter that changed the complexion of the game.
“I just saw that it was wide open to the right,” Thomas recalled. “The hole was wide open, and I went. Koa (Farmer) did a good job on getting on the man who was in front of me. I had great blocks all the way.”
Thomas’ return set up the first rushing touchdown of the afternoon for quarterback Trace McSorley and helped put the Nittany Lions back in the lead for good.
“I think that was a big momentum swing,” Thomas said. “Just to get the guys fired up, it’s a blessing, and we fed off that energy. We finished.”
A fumble forced by Jonathan Sutherland and recovered by Nick Scott set up the second McSorley rushing touchdown of the day and sealed the win for Penn State.
“It’s a win,” Franklin said. “It’s something to build on and we’re excited about that. We’ll take this win, go back in and watch the film, make corrections and get better.”
THE GAME BALLS
My top three performers:
1. Stevie Scott
Indiana running back
Scott rushed for 138 yards on 26 carries and two touchdowns.
2. Yetur Gross-Matos/Shaka Toney
Penn State defensive ends
The defensive ends combined for six sacks and 16 tackles.
3. Penn State special teams
Big returns by Hamler and Thomas set up two Penn State touchdowns, but a forced fumble by Jonathan Sutherland and the subsequent return by Nick Scott sealed the deal for Penn State. Jake Pinegar was 2-for-2 on field goals.
For the first time in three games, Penn State was able to finish on its terms. The Nittany Lions failed to put things away against both Ohio State and Michigan State, but with the game on the line and their defense on the field, it was Penn State who came out on top.
“It was great to finish on our terms,” Scott said. “I decided to make it a little more interesting than it had to be, but regardless of the fact, I had 10 guys that had my back, and we were able to finish the game, which is great for our confidence.”
Finishing was largely the result of the front four of the defense bringing their best performance of the season on a day when Indiana ran 100 plays.
“When you can get production out of your front four, that’s really, really important,” Franklin said. “They were able to run the ball on us, we made some adjustments.”
It was Toney and Gross-Matos who led the way along the defensive front with six sacks and 16 total tackles on the afternoon, causing fits for both Indiana quarterbacks.
“We didn’t really do as well as we wanted to in the first half,” Gross-Matos said. “In the second half, we really got after it, and we got to him when we needed to get to him.”
Finishing and coming out on top in a close game should give the Nittany Lions needed confidence as they host Iowa next week, and while Indiana might not be where Iowa is as a program — and nowhere close to Ohio State or Michigan State — it’s a start.
“I felt like we finished well. I mean, obviously, we want to go and take back that drive, the second to last drive they scored, take that away,” Gross-Matos said. “The defense collectively wants to win the game on our terms.”
Penn State’s first-down defense was close to non-existent throughout first three quarters against the Hoosiers. In the first quarter, they gave up plays of 17, 26, and 9 yards on first downs, and continued that trend in the second with giving up gains of 7 and 18 yards.
Giving up long yardage plays on first downs is far from ideal for a defensive unit predicated on minimizing chunk plays.
Out of the half, Indiana had gains of 9, 19, 9 yards respectively on first-down plays alone. It was a far-from-ideal start to the half for the Nittany Lions, however, a fumble recovery stopped the Hoosiers’ initial drive. Penn State followed it up by allowing a 14-yard run on the ensuing drive.
The Nittany Lions will need to buckle down on first down if they want to win more Big Ten games. It will also behoove Penn State to improve in tackling overall.
The play of the game came late in the third quarter on a kickoff by Indiana. Thomas fielded the ball at the 1-yard line and almost took it to the end zone before stepping out of bounds at the Indiana 5-yard line.
It changed complexion of the game and swung momentum in favor of the Nittany Lions.
“I knew that it was coming my way by the kicker’s approach,” Thomas said. “He usually takes three steps; that’s when he kicks it to KJ’s side. When he takes seven steps, he kicks it to the left. We were prepared, I knew it was coming my way, and I took everything that was open.”
After cutting the lead to five points, Indiana lined up for an onside kick. The kick ended up in the hands of Penn State wide receiver Brandon Polk, seemingly ending the game. Or so we thought…
Franklin called a time out prior to the ball being kicked, meaning the Hoosiers would live to get another chance. The call for a timeout came at a pivotal point and easily could have backfired on the Nittany Lions.
“We weren’t aligned correctly,” Franklin said of the timeout. “We thought we had a weakness, and they have shown that they’ll kick multiple different onside kicks.”
THE OTHER SIDE
Indiana did what they had to do to be in the game at the end, but eventually the turnovers and clock management issues caught up to the Hoosiers.
Quarterback Peyton Ramsey paced Indiana through the air with 236 yards and a touchdown, but it was running back Stevie Scott who had a breakout performance for the Hoosiers. Scott ran for 138 yards and two touchdowns for Indiana and seemingly ran roughshod over the Penn State defense in the first half.
The Hoosiers dominated on the ground in the first half, running for 145 yards and two touchdowns, but were forced to go through the air to finish the game because they were trailing two scores in the second half .
Ramsey found J-Shun Harris for a 21-yard touchdown to pull within five points with under a minute left in the game. On the ensuing onside kick, Indiana recovered. However, the Hoosiers would fail to find the end zone prior to the clock expiring.
THE INJURY UPDATE
• Juwan Johnson, wide receiver, was sidelined in the second half with an undisclosed injury.
No. 18 Penn State returns home next week for a 3:30 p.m. tilt against Iowa. The Hawkeyes took down Maryland 23-0 early Saturday afternoon.
Visit our Penn State team page for everything from this game.