STATE COLLEGE — In many ways, Saturday’s 34-27 win over Indiana was just what ninth-ranked Penn State needed following last week’s disappointing loss at Minnesota.
And yet in others, the Nittany Lions (9-1) still face some serious questions ahead of their season’s biggest test.
To be sure, it was a marked improvement from last week, particularly in the turnover department. After getting picked off three times at Minnesota, including once on the game’s final drive, Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford coughed the ball up just once against Indiana (7-3) on a strip sack that wasn’t entirely his fault.
It was Penn State’s only giveaway on the day, and the Nittany Lions forced two takeaways of their own.
Also encouraging was the fact that Penn State rebounded and played with energy. After last year’s first loss, a deflating 27-26 decision against Ohio State, the Nittany Lions couldn’t get back up, and followed that defeat with a 21-17 loss to Michigan State — a team Penn State should have easily handled.
The difference this time around?
“We have a 1-0 mentality, and will continue to do that the way we have all season,” running back Journey Brown said. “Just like with this one, we’ll have fun and we’ll celebrate this one, and when Sunday comes, we’ll forget about it and start focusing on the next game.”
The victory also keeps Penn State’s narrow College Football Playoff hopes alive, as a win at No. 2 Ohio State this weekend and a subsequent Big Ten championship would likely vault the Nittany Lions back into the top four.
There’s still certainly some room for improvement as the Nittany Lions’ toughest task awaits, though.
After going 6-of-10 for 96 yards and a touchdown after just one quarter, Clifford cooled off and finished 11-of-23 for 179 yards and the lone touchdown. He did, however, add two scores and 55 yards on the ground.
Of the performance, Clifford said, “I came in last week early and just made sure that we were getting back on track, and I think we did a pretty good job of that today. Obviously, there’s a lot of corrections to be made, but overall, I’m just happy that we won, we’re back on track.”
Meanwhile, in the run game, Brown overcame a sluggish start (18 yards on nine carries in the first half) to finish with 100 yards rushing and a touchdown on 21 attempts, and the Nittany Lions ran for 192 yards as a team.
And yet, despite the balanced production, Penn State was still outgained by the Hoosiers, 462-371, largely because of a porous pass defense that’s now ranked 12th out of 14 teams in the Big Ten.
Indiana quarterback Peyton Ramsey completed 31 of 41 passes for 371 yards and a touchdown, and twice early on, Penn State was burned deep across the middle.
And while Penn State head coach James Franklin was quick to point out that IU — in the midst of its first winning season since 2007 — leads the Big Ten in passing yardage, he also acknowledged, “Can we get better there (in the pass defense)? There’s no doubt about it. Obviously we’ll work on that a great deal.”
He followed that with, “But again, the most important stat is that we found a way to get a win.”
Indeed, the Nittany Lions did pull it out, but it’s hard to imagine a scenario where Buckeye quarterback Justin Fields completes 76% of his passes and Penn State still has an opportunity to win the game this Saturday.
After all, Ohio State, which holds a 4-1 record against James Franklin and stands at 10-0 in 2019, leads the Big Ten in both passing touchdowns (38) and passing efficiency (188.9 efficiency rating, 68.1 completion percentage).
Indiana’s 27 points were also the second-most Penn State has given up this season, behind the 31 Minnesota hung on the Nittany Lions last week. It’s an alarming trend as Penn State gears up to face the Big Ten’s top scoring offense in Ohio State, which is averaging more than 51 points per game to date.
Despite those few struggles, though, Penn State managed a crucial victory. Franklin points to what he calls the four “critical stats” as to why.
“We did a great job with them, we won all four of them that we talk about all the time,” he said. “We won the field position battle, we won the turnover battle this week, we won the penalty battle… And then we won the explosive play battle, which was great.”
Whether or not Penn State can do that against the vaunted Buckeyes in a hostile environment, and whether or not that will even be enough, remains to be seen.
(Joel Whetzel, an Era sports reporter, can be reached at email@example.com)