Finding A Way To Win Is All That Matters For Penn State
“Every win is different” James Franklin said. “When you have a young, developing, growing team, that’s an important trait. It’s to find all different ways to win, and that’s what this team is doing right now.”
That’s a defining statement following the come from behind 45-31 victory on the road against Indiana. And there may be no better way to describe what this team has done this year.
Whether it was rallying in the second half to hold off Minnesota in overtime, or overcoming injury and depth concern to blow out Maryland, or making the insanely clutch plays to knock off Ohio State, or breaking a road-win drought in emphatic fashion against Purdue.
Saturday’s win over Indiana combined a little bit of everything mentioned above.
Aside from last week’s win over Iowa, the Nittany Lions haven’t made it easy on themselves in the first half. Penn State scored on the opening-drive for the third-straight game, but had trouble moving the ball for the rest of the first half — going three-and-out on three of its ten possessions and turning the ball over on downs twice.
Penn State’s only other scoring drive in the first half started on Indiana’s six-yard line following a fumble on the punt return.
Part of the issue, Maxwell Award semifinalist Saquon Barkley had rushed for just 21 yards on 15 carries in the opening half. With Indiana’s defense blitzing on most plays and breaking down the Penn State offensive line, Barkley didn’t have much time to get going off the read option — getting tackled for a loss on a number of occasions and losing a total of 25 yards in the first half.
He still managed to have huge moments in the second half, scoring two touchdowns and providing better gains on the ground — much to the second-half nature of this team.
“Today, I was trying to make a play too much,” Barkley said. “Things weren’t going our way. I was trying to be a playmaker, but I just got to settle down and relax and take what they give you. I kind of did that more towards the second half, but I’ve got to do that earlier. That’s Big Ten football. They’re a tough team and obviously we had some issues with the O-line, with guys going down.”
The offensive line has been hampered by injury the past couple weeks, much like the linebacker core was earlier in the season. Franklin has had to make a number of changes on the fly to the offensive line.
The offensive line injury struggles started against Maryland with Andrew Nelson getting carted off with a season-ending injury. Guard turned tackle Brendan Mahon was hospitalized earlier in the week and missed out on the trip to Bloomington. Paris Palmer, who stepped in at tackle for the injured Nelson, and Connor McGovern were both knocked out of the game today.
There’s been a lot of shifting pieces over the last month, with center Brian Gaia being lone consistent factor. Other guys, who wouldn’t have gotten many minutes otherwise, have stepped up to keep Penn State afloat.
“We’ve had a lot of injuries, right now I think we’re on our fourth or fifth offensive tackle situation,” Franklin said. “We have [Ryan] Bates playing tackle for the first time today. We have [Steven] Gonzalez who hasn’t played a whole lot of football, we pretty much played the whole game with him. I’m proud of the guys. Nobody panicked.”
The offensive line held together enough to keep Penn State’s offense going, but it was the defense that made the crucial plays to keep this from getting away from Franklin’s squad.
Between the season-high five forced turnovers — the most since the October 2015 win over Maryland — and the huge turnover on downs on the goal line to keep it a one possession game and to hold on to the four-point lead in the fourth quarter, Penn State’s defense was clutch enough to keep hope alive for a ten-win season.
Perhaps the defining clutch play in this one was Brandon Bell’s forced fumble on Indiana’s last drive down by just a touchdown. In a flash, the Hooisers’ hopes of sending the game to overtime all went away with Torrence Brown’s scoop and score on the loose ball caused by Bell to put Penn State up two scores.
“I just saw it on the ground and saw open field in front of me,” Brown said. “It was really special. I haven’t scored a touchdown since high school, so it was really special to get one in college.”
With the game in the bag following Brown’s touchdown, Penn State secured its second road win in as many away contests after a two-year drought without a win on an opponent’s true home field.
Something about James Franklin’s team is clicking in a way it hasn’t during his tenure. Whatever it is, he’s secured two other impressive feats today — Penn State’s first 8-2 start in the post-Joe Paterno era and Penn State’s first six-game Big Ten winning streak in a single season since 1994.