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The Wind of Change Brings Turbulence: Young Lions Gain Experience

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Any port in a storm, or win on the road in-conference, should be respite enough for weary fans.

NCAA Football: Penn State at Indiana Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

When considering the expectations for the Penn State football team from August through seven games of the season, at times the goal posts have moved. A month ago it was expected that James Franklin would guide his young team to the College Football Playoff and anything less would not suffice. Following two losses, hopes turned to having a strong finish and possibly making a third consecutive New Year’s Six bowl appearance.

Then on a day when the goal posts were actually moving, due to the force of an unrelenting wind, the Lions barely escaped with a win in hand. While there is a feeling among some that the win was not enough, that the margin of victory should have been larger, we should all be grateful that we aren’t discussing whether it was a good or bad loss.

In a season where hopes and expectations have blown strong at the team’s back, and then in its face, any win should at least inspire a heart-felt sigh of relief that the team can use to fill its sails.

With two solid opponents in Ohio State and Michigan State in the rear view mirror, the Lions were fortunate to add a conference road win. While coach Franklin will take each of the next three games one at a time, the schedule shows that there are three ranked teams ahead: Iowa at home, Michigan in Ann Arbor, and Wisconsin at home.

At least for the next three weeks the goal posts will remain squarely in place. Any win, of any margin, will be enough to satisfy most fans. A loss will hurt, but will not be so painful as it was just a couple of weeks ago.

How It Happened

The teams swapped touchdowns on their opening drives. Penn State’s was set up by a long kickoff return by KJ Hamler to the Hoosier 36. Miles Sanders capped the drive with a one yard rushing touchdown. Indiana’s score came aided by a reverse to the five yard line by Whop Philyor.

The Lions stalled on the next drive then punted the ball to the Indiana 5. After allowing a first down on a 13 yard scramble on 3rd and 11, the Lions forced a punt. DeAndre Thompkins fumbled the punt at the 33 but was able to recover. The wind was fierce all game and early, facing the direction that Thompkins was to receive the punt, the sun was at a hideous angle. Four plays later Blake Gillikin stepped onto the field for the second time, booting the ball to the Indiana 21.

After the starters on Penn State’s defense played the entire first two drives, linebacker Micah Parsons and cornerback Donovan Johnson entered the game on the third possession.

Aided by a fortunate holding call that gave Indiana 3rd and 20 after running the ball into the territory of the Lions, a left-footed rugby-style punt by Haydon Whitehead brought the ball to the 34. After a first down pass to DeAndre Thompkins across the 45, the drive stalled. A punt ensued. A penalty was called, a five-yard running into the kicker, and the Lions lined up a second time. This time, it was a fake. Gillikin attempted to run for the first down but was taken down behind the line of scrimmage, losing ten yards.

Ellis Brooks entered the game at middle linebacker for the first time to defend the next Indiana drive. It didn’t help to slow down the Hoosiers, as it took just 1:02 and four plays to go 42 yards for a 14-7 lead with a minute to play in the first quarter.

Trace McSorley and Miles Sanders got the majority of the work as the offense got three consecutive first downs to start the next drive. On third down in Hoosier territory, a pass was deflected into the air off the hand of Mac Hippenhammer and was intercepted by Bryant Fitzgerald at the 28.

A holding call on a made third down conversion across midfield brought Indiana back to third and long at their own 25. PSU forced a punt. Tommy Stevens entered the game lined up at runningback during the next drive, used as a decoy to vacate a linebacker from the middle as McSorley ran 44 yards up the gut into Indiana territory. A couple of plays later, Stevens lined up at quarterback and used McSorley as a decoy in the flat while hitting Pat Freiermuth on a 23 yard touchdown. The game was tied 14-14 with ten minutes before the half.

After giving up twenty yards on the opening play, the Lions forced a punt. On third down of the next series, Juwan Johnson caught a shallow crossing pass and ran 59 yards to the Indiana 13. The drive stalled there and Jake Pinegar came in for a 27 yard field goal and a 17-14 lead.

Playing mostly five defensive backs, Micah Parsons and Ellis Brooks were in together at linebacker for the next defensive series before the ball crossed midfield. The starting linebackers came back in to try to defend the end zone. On 3rd and 1 from the 11 yard line, Koa Farmer and Yetur Gross-Matos made a tackle behind the line to make. After a Penn State timeout, Indiana fell short on fourth down, coming away with no points.

The Lions had a chance to hold the ball until the half but were unable to get a first down. The punt by Gillkin went only 29 yards to the 42. With 1:10 on the clock and one timeout, the Hoosiers had a chance in plus territory. The Lions held.

Indiana got the ball to open the second half and got three first downs, taking the ball into Penn State territory. Garrett Taylor picked up a fumble caused by P.J. Mustipher to end the promising drive at the 22.

Chasz Wright entered the game at right tackle to open the second half. Penn State drove down the field, settling for a field goal after a ball that Brandon Polk could have caught for a touchdown went off his fingers.

On the next drive safety Garrett Taylor was given a questionable targeting penalty and was ejected for the remainder of the game, and also the first half of the game next week versus Iowa. Jonathan Sutherland entered the game at safety. Robert Windsor was called for hands to the face, another 15 yard penalty on the drive. Indiana capped the 81 yard drive with a touchdown from three yards out to take a 21-20 lead with four minutes to play in the third quarter.

Jonathan Thomas, a fifth-year senior special teams contributor, turned the tide back in the Lions’ favor with a 94 yard kickoff return moments later. Trace McSorley ran it in from five yards out on the next play and it was 26-21 after a blocked extra point.

Penn State’s defense stiffened once Indiana crossed midfield on the next drive, getting the ball back to the offense at the 6 after KJ Hamler was forced to let the punt drop to the ground. The wind was swirling all day and it affected the flight of the ball considerably. The Lions got enough yardage to get a solid punt, and on the play, Nick Scott picked up a fumble caused by Jonathan Sutherland.

Freshman receiver Daniel George made his first appearance of the day on the next drive, which started just 32 yards from the end zone. George didn’t touch the ball, which ended with a rushing touchdown by Trace McSorley. The lead was 33-21 with ten minutes to play.

The teams swapped punts for the next two possessions. Nick Scott picked off a fourth and long pass to end the next Indiana drive. Penn State threw on three straight plays, taking very little time off the clock, and punted the ball back with 4:16 to play. The Lions used just 19 seconds on the clock in a situation that it could have had the final possession were it able to get a couple of first downs.

The defense played back off the line the entire drive as Indiana worked down the field, scoring a touchdown with 49 seconds to play. Had the Lions used clock on the previous drive, the game may have been over at that point. Instead, an onside kick followed. Indiana recovered after Nick Scott was unable to haul it in.

Shaka Toney had a sack on first and 20 after Indiana took a holding call the on the first play. Two plays later the clock ran out while Indiana attempted a fourth down conversion.

Notes

  • The players on both sides struggled early with the conditions. The sun angle when facing it early in the game was tough for returners and receivers. The wind was relentless all game. It is easy at home to say ‘it’s windy’ and then go on with your life. During a football game, a gusty, strong wind can play havoc on the passing game that you can’t simply wish away.
  • Trace McSorley had 44 yards rushing in the first half on one long run. His other 11 rushes in the first half totaled -1 yards. By the end of the game he had 19 runs for 107 yards and two touchdowns. On a day where the pass game was unreliable at times, it was nice to have a quarterback that could extend drives and score with his feet.
  • Garrett Taylor was handed a targeting penalty on a play that appeared to be clean. While there was helmet-to-helmet contact, Taylor seemed to take the hit on the side of his helmet. Hopefully the play will be reviewed during the week, and corrected, as Taylor would have to miss the first half of the Iowa game if the suspension is upheld.
  • Chasz Wright entered the game at right tackle in the second half and played the remainder of the game. Will Fries has been struggling lately and it may not be a long-term swap. Wright played well after seeing the field mostly in mop-up duty since the beginning of the season.
  • Clock management at the end of the game could have gone better for Penn State. The offense had a chance to bleed time off the clock on its final drive, but threw three consecutive incomplete passes on a windy day. It’s easy to second-guess the coaches but this one sticks out as something that the team needs to work on, running the ball late in the game when needed for strategy.
  • Jahan Dotson, Cam Sullivan-Brown and Daniel George all got onto the field late in the game at wide receiver. The starting wide receivers other than KJ Hamler have struggled recently. With Mac Hippenhammer on the field as well late in the game, it was clear that coach Franklin had made the decision to give the young, talented players a chance to contribute. Statistics will show that there wasn’t much improvement, but the experience that the players gained will surely help their development.
  • At linebacker Micah Parsons played as large a role as he has all season. Parsons rotated in along with Ellis Brooks in base coverage and late in the game, Parsons was on the field in nickel coverage. As was the case with the wide receivers, the young linebackers gained critical experience on the road in conference play.