Irvin Charles just didn’t go down.
Penn State’s offense was middling or worse for most of the first half and for the first five plays of the third quarter. The Nittany Lions faced another third-and-long, and quarterback Trace McSorley, like he had so many times already, had to escape from an eroding pocket.
So much had gone wrong to that point. Then one play really seemed to change everything. There were many incredible plays after it, but Charles’ first career catch was a gigantic one in Penn State’s 29-26 overtime victory Saturday against Minnesota.
McSorley passes down the field to Charles who bounced off Minnesota defensive back Adekunle Ayinde. A few seconds later, Charles had turned his first career reception into an 80-yard touchdown pass.
If McSorley has to tuck the ball and run on that play and doesn’t reach the first-down marker, the chorus of boos might have rivaled anything directed at an opponent in the past four-plus years at Beaver Stadium. Instead, the Nittany Lions offense surged to life.
Charles’ touchdown cut a 10-point Gophers lead to three. Minnesota ran the ball well, and suffocated Penn State running back Saquon Barkley during regulation. The Gophers had a few chances to win this game in the fourth quarter, but an interception in the end zone and settling for field goals twice, once with 54 seconds left and then in overtime, cost them.
Penn State found a new formula after Charles’ big play. It involved more big plays, and a defense that has been shredded on the ground by Pitt and Michigan made some stands.
Minnesota still ran for 228 yards, but it felt like the Gophers got away from what had been working during the third quarter and then the Nittany Lions, despite losing two more linebackers to injury and playing a sixth different player at middle linebacker, found some answers in overtime.
How many times has Penn State played well, only to see its performance slide in the second half in the past four-plus seasons? It could have happened again. This was a close game that Minnesota could have snatched near the end, and it would have looked like another game where the NCAA sanctions-saddled roster just didn’t have enough at the end.
It didn’t. Penn State’s defense had trouble pressuring Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner for most of the game, but a couple of sacks late were huge plays. Safety Marcus Allen had 22 tackles. That’s not a typo.
True freshman linebacker Cam Brown had nine tackles, though he did make a mistake on Minnesota’s last touchdown. Sophomore Manny Bowen became the sixth man up at middle linebacker, and had a very strong game.
Back to an incredible second-half for the offense. Penn State gained first downs three times because of Minnesota penalties in the first half, but otherwise the Nittany Lions were putrid on third down before Charles’ catch.
Here’s the sequence of third-down plays that didn’t end in penalties:
* third-and-7, pass incomplete
* third-and-10, pass for 4 yards
* third-and-8, Barkley draw for 3 yards
* third-and-10, McSorley run for 8 yards
* third-and-goal, McSorley run for 2 yards to the 1-yard line
* third-and-8, McSorley run for 5 yards
* third-and-18, pass incomplete
* third-and-7, McSorley run for 4 yards
* third-and-10, McSorley pass to Charles for 80 yards, touchdown
The offense had sputtered inefficiently before Charles’ catch. Afterward, the running game and short passing attack was still pretty inconsistent. McSorley had enough time to throw the ball deep, and Penn State found big plays available.
Chris Godwin didn’t have a catch until the third quarter, but hauled in a 36-yard reception. Mike Gesicki had a few short receptions, but a broken coverage left him wide open for a 53-yard play that led to McSorley’s touchdown scamper. A deep pass earlier on that drive had fallen incomplete, but Charles drew a pass interference call.
McSorley’s game-tying drive was borderline mythical. He completed a third-down pass to a diving Godwin while practically falling down and heaving the ball off his back foot. He had run several times earlier the game, but when he took off on third-and-3, there was acres of space in the middle of the field so McSorley scampered for 26 yards and put his team into field-goal range to force overtime.
Barkley couldn’t get anything going in the second half, but he finally added a big play in overtime. His 25-yard walk-off score may have capped Penn State’s best victory of the James Franklin era. It certainly could be the most important, to this point.
“We’re going to grow from this,” Franklin said on the field after the game.
There were certainly things to build from. Penn State will need to continue to prove it can throw the ball down the field, which could open space for Barkley. The defense remains decimated, but the performance in the second half and overtime was encouraging.
The Nittany Lions appeared to be teetering on the edge of despair, and then Charles made one of the biggest plays at Beaver Stadium during the past three seasons.