Penn State beat itself in mistake-filled overtime loss to Indiana

Did Indiana quarterback Michael Penix Jr. reach the pylon before the ball hit out of bounds?

It was almost too close to call, and sure to be the source of frame-by-frame breakdowns on Penn State blogs over the next week. The Hoosiers got the benefit of the doubt on the game-winning 2-point conversion in a 36-35 thriller with the eighth-ranked Nittany Lions on Saturday at Memorial Stadium.

It’s the first controversial play of the Big Ten season, but Penn State put itself in that position with a mistake-filled debut unbecoming of a top-10 team. The game should not have gone to overtime in the first place.

Penn State, which spent most of the first 58 minutes trying to find the end zone, scored at the most inopportune time. The Nittany Lions had the ball, a 21-20 lead and were poised to put Indiana — which had one timeout left — out of the game.

But Devyn Ford burst through the line of scrimmage, and couldn’t pull up before his momentum carried him across the goal line for a 14-yard touchdown. Penn State led 28-20 with 1:42 remaining, but Penix led the game-tying drive in regulation.

Yeah, the Nittany Lions scored first in overtime, but you know the Hoosiers would go for the win if they got the chance. Indiana coach Tom Allen obliged, and Penix Jr.’s dash to the pylon was a by-definition photo finish. Blame the officials for not overturning the call.

The nonsensical finish was a product of Penn State leaving that door open on the road. Sean Clifford’s go-ahead touchdown pass to Jahan Dotson with 2:22 remaining should have been the end of it. Back-to-back sacks by Shaka Toney should have been the end of it. Shoot, Parker Washington’s touchdown in overtime should have been the end of it.

Penn State was supposed to be the lead challenger for No. 5 Ohio State in the Big Ten championship race in 2020. Now, the Nittany Lions enter a Halloween matchup against the Buckeyes facing elimination from any shred of College Football Playoff contention.

To be fair, the Nittany Lions had several factors working against them before the season started. SN Preseason All-American linebacker Micah Parsons — arguably the nation’s best defensive player — opted out before the season started. Journey Brown, who rushed for 890 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2019, is out indefinitely with an undisclosed injury. The Big Ten isn’t allowing fans in stadiums this season because of COVID-19, so the “White Out” is no longer a distinct home-field advantage, no matter how many cardboard cutouts are in the stands.

Penn State coach James Franklin — who has led the Nittany Lions to the fifth-best record among Power 5 schools since 2016 behind Playoff regulars Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State and Oklahoma — would never use those as excuses, even if they aren’t bad ones.

They still didn’t apply against Indiana, and the Nittany Lions created their own problems. Penn State nearly doubled up Indiana in yards, both in the first half (173-87) and for the game (488-211).

Penn State also committed three first-half turnovers, including two interceptions from Clifford. The Nittany Lions missed three field goals for the game. The running game rushed for just 82 yards in the first half before finding its rhythm in the second half. Clifford was more scrambler than pocket passer. He had 238 passing yards and 119 rushing yards, but the continuity was lacking on offense.

The missed opportunities continued in the second half. First-and-10 from the 16-yard line turned into another missed field goal after an offensive pass interference call. With 4:55 left in the fourth quarter, Indiana’s Cam Jones stuffed Penn State’s Keyvone Lee on fourth-and-1 from the 25 yard line.

All of that came before the wild three minutes and overtime. It was a long, unavoidable list where everything that could go wrong, did go wrong for Penn State. The Nittany Lions ran into the wrong team at the wrong time in the upstart Hoosiers, who would have lost that game in the past to Penn State, Ohio State or Michigan. The Hoosiers rarely get the benefit of the doubt.

They did this time, and Penn State now faces Big Ten and — Playoff elimination — at home against the Buckeyes.

You can blame the refs and say Penix Jr. was short. But those excuses are out of bounds, too.

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