Indiana 36, Penn State 35: Nittany Lions Drop Season Opener in Frustrating Fashion

By Dan Smith on October 24, 2020 at 8:39 pm
Oct 24, 2020; Bloomington, Indiana, USA; Indiana Hoosiers quarterback Michael Penix Jr. (9) dives with the ball to score a two point conversion and win the game in overtime during the game at Memorial Stadium. The Indiana Hoosiers defeated the Penn State Nittany Lions 36 to 35.
Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

Penn State started its 2020 season with as frustrating a loss as fans have seen in quite a while, falling 36-35 in overtime on the final play of the game. We will dive into the events in more detail over the next few days, but here are the key points:

  • Head coach James Franklin will have plenty of questions to answer. Why did Devyn Ford score a touchdown instead of stopping on the one-yard line to let the clock bleed out? Why did they not attempt a 2-point conversion to potentially go up by two scores? Why did they burn multiple timeouts on the goal line and leave themselves with limited opportunities to get into field goal range at the end of regulation? It was not the sort of game that leaves you feeling comfortable afterwards.
  • It was a rough first game for both quarterback Sean Clifford and offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca. Clifford ran the football well, but misfired on multiple throws and had two killer interceptions. Ciarrocca had some very questionable play calls in short yardage situations. Some of that is to be expected with all of the delays in the offseason, but everything is magnified in such a high stakes, close game.
  • The elephant in the room is the officiating. There were two terrible blown calls that went against Penn State: an offensive pass interference on Pat Freiermuth in the second quarter directly led to a missed field goal on what could have been a touchdown drive, and a phantom face mask call against Adisa Isaac helped Indiana on the drive in regulation that tied the game at 28. And Indiana should have lost the game on the final play: replay definitively showed that Michael Penix Jr. touched the ball out of bounds before the ball broke the plane of the goal line or touched the pylon. Yet the officials stuck with the call on the field, apparently unaware of the difference between "very close but definitive" and "too close to overturn the call on the field." However, while that is frustrating, too many mistakes on Penn State's side allowed those plays to be factors.
  • An injury to Noah Cain on the first drive has Penn State really testing its running back depth. With Journey Brown already out, the Nittany Lions suddenly are very young in the backfield. And it was not a good outing for third-stringer Devyn Ford, who struggled navigating the tight windows in the offensive line. Ford also had the critical error on the touchdown run, recognizing a moment too late that he should have laid down on the one-yard line. True freshman Keyvone Lee looked much better in his playing time, and Franklin may get questions about not going with the hot hand.
  • Defensively, Penn State played well for most of the game, but they faltered when it mattered most. Still, credit to Shaka Toney, who played great in the fourth quarter and had back-to-back sacks that should have ended Indiana's chances. Lamont Wade was a playmaker in this one as well, and Joey Porter Jr. showed why he won the starting job at cornerback with several good plays on balls thrown his way, as well as a sack.
  • Jake Pinegar had a brutal day, with two missed field goals, including a short one at the end of the first half. Penn State has two scholarship kickers on the roster, and they combined to miss three field goals (to Jordan Stout's credit, he came up barely a yard short on a 57-yard attempt). That cannot happen.
  • The offensive line's conditioning seemed to falter as the game went on. Penn State did have the ball for more of the game than Indiana did, but the rotation of the offensive linemen is supposed to help keep guys fresh. It did not seem to take, and at times they failed to open holes for the running game and protect Clifford on his drop backs.
  • The true freshmen at wide receiver made a couple of nice plays. KeAndre Lambert-Smith had a good catch and broken tackle, and Parker Washington made a big play in overtime to put Penn State ahead. They complemented Jahan Dotson well, who finally hit a home run with the long touchdown pass to put them ahead 21-20 in the fourth quarter.
  • Dotson did have a fumble on a punt return. Marquis Wilson stumbled while getting knocked off of a block and tumbled into Dotson right as the ball was getting there. It is frustrating, but that play seemed more like a fluke than any of the other turnovers. So long as that does not become a trend, they should be okay in the return game.
  • Jesse Luketa was kicked out of the game for an obvious targeting in the third quarter, which means he will be suspended for the Ohio State game. Freshmen Lance Dixon and Curtis Jacobs are going to be leaned on heavily against one of the top teams in the country.

The Nittany Lions are in serious danger of starting this shortened season with an 0-2 record, as they have their home opener against 5th-ranked Ohio State coming up on Saturday, October 31.

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