This was going to be that game for Penn State.
After a five-game winning streak that vaulted the Nittany Lions from Big Ten also-ran to No. 10 in the nation, everything was going wrong Saturday for Penn State at Indiana’s Memorial Stadium.
Already short two offensive tackles, a third was injured and lost for the game. Quarterback Trace McSorley missed a play because of an ankle injury, and looked as bad as he had all season. Running back Saquon Barkley kept going backwards as often as he went forward.
After weeks of everyone outside the program saying, “You know, if Penn State wins out against a very manageable schedule …” this was the point where a young, developing team stumbled, and the potential for a truly special season could be lost.
The Nittany Lions trailed by 10 points and were losing at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Then the final 18 minutes of this game became a microcosm of the 2016 Penn State season.
McSorley and the passing attack hit on several big plays. Barkley kept churning. The defense, which had been gouged in the middle of this game, made three consecutive stops and sealed a 45-31 victory against the Hoosiers.
Penn State, which lost a fourth offensive lineman late, staggered but did not stumble, and won a sixth straight game. The Nittany Lions have all kinds of problems on the offensive line, but they also have two of the worst teams in the conference between them and a 10-2 regular season.
Barkley finished with 60 yards on 33 carries. According to sports-reference.com, no player in college football has had a game like that dating back to 2000 (as far back as the site’s data goes).
Here’s a list of the fewest rushing yards any player in the country has had since 2000 with at least 33 carries:
The running game struggled mightily, but McSorley came to the rescue.
“Trace is tough, smart, resilient. He is a playmaker and the guys believe in him,” Penn State coach James Franklin told the assembled media at Memorial Stadium after the game.
At one point, McSorley was 8 of 19 and had two interceptions in a four-throw span. He wasn’t helping Barkley on the ground, either because his taped up ankle limited him or because Indiana shredded Penn State’s blockers. He may have been making the right reads, but other defenders were blowing up the option attack.
Penn State needed to find big plays through the air, and he ultimately delivered. After the second interception, McSorley completed eight of his next 10 passes for 222 yards and a touchdown.
There was a 43-yarder to Saeed Blacknall. A 54-yarder on a flea flicker to DaeSean Hamilton. A 26-yarder to Chris Godwin to set up the go-ahead touchdown. His final pass was a throw near the goal line, but when Penn State needed to save a potential spot in a New Year’s Six bowl game, McSorley was brilliant.
It looked like this would be McSorley’s worst game of the season for about 60 percent of it. But he finished with 332 passing yards and three touchdowns (two passing, one rushing).
There have been times when it didn’t look pretty. It’s been plenty inefficient.
McSorley and the Nittany Lions continue to find a way. The wide receivers struggled to get open earlier in the game, but they connected with McSorley on just enough big plays to keep this remarkable Penn State revival rolling.