clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

On to Columbus: Penn State 29, Indiana 7

It wasn't always pretty, but Penn State earned a comfortable win over Indiana, and heads into next Saturday's Ohio State game on a five-game winning streak.

Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

It's kind of weird to feel this good about a game that could've gone so horribly wrong.

For most of the first quarter, it felt like this would be another painful, sloppy, ugly, turn-off-your-television kind of games. On the first drive, Hackenberg couldn't hit his wide open receivers. On the second, those receivers couldn't reel in Hack's throws. Even the defense dropped a pair of easy interceptions. Late in the quarter, Penn State scored a touchdown, but, promptly, Joey Julius put the ensuing kickoff out of bounds. It was that kind of game.

And then Indiana drove for a touchdown, surprised the return team with an onside, and recovered. It was a tailor-made turning point, designed and executed perfectly by Kevin Wilson and his team. A score there might have demoralized the 100,000 in the house for Homecoming, forced Penn State to deal with the type of adversity they haven't faced since the Temple game.

But Penn State's defense was up to the task--as it was all game, the lone touchdown drive notwithstanding. And even though Mark Allen would cough the ball up on the next drive, it never really felt like the Nittany Lions were going to be in trouble.

The offense came alive just enough later in that second quarter to put this one out of reach for an Indiana team already playing without its top quarterback and running back--and then forced to rely on its third string quarterback once Zander Diamont was knocked out. Diamont, despite his spunk and fearlessness, was no match for Penn State's front-four--especially once they could pin their ears back and come after him--but a redshirt freshman like Danny Cameron had no chance. By the time this one devolved into a puntfest in the second half--the third quarter featured 7 punts and no first downs--this game was already over.

And it was over, in no small part, due to a excellent gameplan from John Donovan. Credit where it's due: operating without Saquon Barkley and Akeel Lynch, Donovan let Hack loose from the get-go (the first play of the game was a bomb down the sideline for Godwin) and abandoned the quick-release passing game for a more downfield attack. There were the adjustments us fans had long since called for, but even more, a spark of creativity to get the ball into the hands of his most talented skill players. While Hackenberg's final numbers don't look especially pretty, he looked as comfortable as he's been all season, if not more so, and never seemed to retreat into that shell we've sometimes seen him in. He made good throws under pressure, on the run, while scrambling--and when those weren't there, he took off running. And he converted third- and fourth-downs with his voice, drawing Indiana offsides and picking up the first.

Donvoan's gameplan made for a more effective run game, just because those handoffs tended to take Indiana off-guard: Nick Scott and Mark Allen didn't quite make anyone forget about Barkley and Lynch, but they ran hard, downfield, and with purpose, and took what was given to them. There was balance, even as Penn State passed more than it rushed.

And what's more, we saw Brandon Polk and DeAndre Thompkins actually get involved in the offense beyond the jet sweeps! Both are football players, not just gadget speedsters (like, say, Devon Smith), and while it's frustrating that it took half the season to incorporate Polk in the passing game, where he caught both targets--a crossing route and a wheel route TD--John Donovan, or James Franklin, who may be taking more of an initiative in the offensive gameplan, proved that he's capable of learning on the job and finding what works. Even Kyle Carter got involved! And there were no new injuries (on Penn State's side)! Adam Breneman didn't play, but suited up for the first time all season and ran through drills! Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt!

Granted, there are still plenty of legitimate gripes. Penn State's offensive struggles coming out of the halftime break suggest an inability to quickly respond to the opponent's adjustments. Hack certainly started feeling the pressure more in that third quarter, as Paris Palmer started to look like the Paris Palmer we saw in Philadelphia. Andrew Nelson's return was key for a thin OL playing without Angelo Mangiro, but Herb Hand, unlike Donovan, doesn't earn a pass this week. Even though Hack wasn't running for his life like he did in the Temple game, and plenty of them were coverage sacks, you're not going to win a lot of games when your QB goes down in the backfield six times. And for all the credit we're giving Donovan, Penn State was still a putrid 3-11 on third down conversions.

And boy, those special teams that looked so good against Rutgers just continued to regress. Joey Julius shanked two extra points in addition to putting a kickoff out of bounds. He, perhaps, just lost his job to Tyler Davis, who made his extra point and a chip shot field goal. What's more, Chris Gulla apparently got hurt at the end of the Army game, so Danny Pasquariello took back the punting job...and promptly reminded us why Gulla usurped him in the first place. Penn State has a top-10 recruiting class in the country, and the two most exciting incoming freshmen are probably Blake Gillikin and Quinn Nordin. Now that is #B1G.

Anyway, given the offensive line's continued struggles, and the still-unsettled injury situation, it would be presumptuous to feel particularly confident about next week's Ohio State game, even as those Buckeyes struggled to put away a miserable Maryland team today. We haven't seen Donovan put together two good gameplans in a row, and Ohio Stadium, under the lights, isn't quite the same as a noontime kick before a friendly, if listless, Homecoming crowd. Early on, too, it was clear that Indiana had spent all its energy on last week's game, one that threatened to be a program-changer. If Penn State was going to lose today, it was only because these Nittany Lions would beat themselves.

But considering how down we were a week ago at this point, how much we thought this was a lost season after barely squeaking by Army (which, as I write this, trails Duke by 41), it's good to be able to look forward to that game, and not already be chalking it up as a loss. The Buckeyes may win--in fact, they probably will--but it won't be another 63-14.