Bloomington, Ind. – Indiana gave their biggest home crowd of the season plenty of reasons to get excited Saturday, but seemed to let them down hard at every critical junction. A myriad of offensive mistakes, poor tackling, and four critical turnovers were ultimately the Hoosiers undoing against visiting Penn State, a team that rarely beats themselves. Indiana left the field Saturday wishing they could say the same after a very disappointing 36-31 homecoming loss.
"We made a lot of mistakes," said Indiana quarterback Kellen Lewis. "I had three turnovers myself.
"Turnovers was definitely the difference," added Indiana Coach Bill Lynch. "You just can't afford that many against a team like Penn State."
Lewis, IU's offensive leader this season, was unusually careless with the ball on Saturday. His three miscues all seemed to crush IU momentum dead in its tracks at key moments in the second half. His first fumble was hardly his fault as Penn State defensive end Maurice Evans came clean on a blitz to pulverize Lewis in the backfield and knock the ball free. It just happened to bounce perfectly into Evans hands, who sprinted 53 yards down the field before being dragged down from behind by Hoosier Bryan Payton. That turned a potential lead-changing scoring drive into an easy Penn State field goal that extended their lead to 26-17 in the third quarter.
On IU's next offensive possession Lewis took the snap on first down, looked right to pass and then looked left before sprinting towards the sidelines to escape pressure. Before he could find safety though, Evans once again jarred him with a ferocious hit that knocked the ball loose. Penn State jumped on the ball and was set up in the Hoosier red zone at the seven-yard line. That led to another quick Nittany Lion field goal and the lead was quickly 29-17.
"It was just mental mistakes," said Lewis. "On the second fumble I was trying to throw the ball to the wrong side of the field in the first place and then didn't do a good job of covering the ball up once I made the mistake."
At that point IU seemed to be dead in the water as hundreds of Hoosier fans made their way towards the exits with 12:30 remaining in the game. But the Hoosiers didn't quit.
"Our kids really battled hard," said Indiana Coach Bill Lynch. "They were down, but they really came back and played hard.
"They are resilient group. You can get them down, but you can't knock them out."
The Hoosiers quickly picked themselves off the mat in the fourth quarter trailing by 12 points and began a heroic, if not successful, comeback. Lewis showed his resiliency by quickly leading the Hoosiers on a 13-play, 80 yard drive that featured a 3rd and 4 conversion and a gritty 4th and 6 conversion deep in Nittany Lion territory. That play led to a seven-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver James Hardy, who extended his school-record scoring streak to nine games and passed Hoosier Jade Butcher on the Hoosiers all-time receiving touchdowns list. The 6-foot-7 Hard would finish the game with 14 catches for 142 and two scores.
"Obviously Hard had a great day," said Lynch. "He gets better and better each week."
That score cut the lead to 29-24 and invigorated the IU crowd with just over eight minutes left in the game. Once again it seemed the Hoosiers were destined for an emotional comeback win and the crowd seemed to sense it. However, a devastating nine play, 77-yard scoring drive by Penn State quickly took the wind out of the Hoosiers' sails and left more fans heading for the exits. When Penn State's Rodney Kinlaw ran in for a score from five yards out to give his team a 36-24 lead with just four minutes left to play the Hoosiers seemed dead in the water.
"That drive was tough, real tough," said Indiana linebacker Will Patterson. "We needed to get them off the field there and keep the momentum and we just couldn't do it. That's on us."
But IU's resiliency would once again shine through. With just under three minutes left Lewis dropped back to pass and for one of the few times all game saw empty space down the right sideline. He bolted past defenders and 56 yards later was in the endzone. The touchdown and extra point cut the lead to 36-31 and gave IU new life. It also had many wondering why Lewis, who had just a handful of rushes all game wasn't utilized more in the ground game. But while he made it look easy on that play, his coach says it was a tough day for Lewis to find room.
"They just did a great job of taking that away," said Lynch. "Sometimes (we call a running play for Lewis) and it's not executed because his read is whether to hand off or keep it and they weren't going to let him run the football. Really his runs came on scrambles late in the game when they were playing a softer pass defense and didn't have many blitzers coming up the inside."
Still, once again Lewis had seemingly single-handedly put the Hoosiers back into the thick of things. Fans excitement arose once again as the defense took the field needing a quick stop. This time they were able to answer, earning a quick three and out by the Nittany Lions and forcing a punt. The Hoosiers were ready to get the ball back and mount what could be their game-winning drive.
Of course, once again the ball didn't bounce IU's way. The ensuing Penn State punt somehow sailed over IU senior Tracy Porter's head and rolled all the way to the Hoosier five-yard line. IU would now have to go 95 yards in under two minutes to earn the victory. It was Porter's second mishandled punt of the game as his fumbled return earlier in the game also proved costly.
"The wind got a little gusty at times today," said Lynch. "It was gusting up out of the south and I really don't know if it was the sun or the wind or what, but that's one of those things you can live because that's a hard play. It did affect field position certainly at the end."
The Hoosiers were determined to march as far down field and strung together a seven play drive that moved them to the 34-yard line before disaster struck again. This time Lewis mishandled a snap and Penn State was there to land it on it with just 40 seconds left in the game. It was game over for the Hoosiers and left a sick, empty feeling in their stomach.
"I've got to come up with that snap," said Lewis. "I just had too many errors. We knew we left a lot of opportunities out on that field today. I'll be thinking about it all night."
It was another missed opportunity for the Hoosiers to gain bowl eligibility and it happened in gut-wrenching fashion. Lynch, however, says that he isn't even beginning to wonder about how his team's resolve and knows they will be ready to try again next week.
"The biggest thing is we didn't quit," said Lynch. "It's a pretty important thing around here. We were a little down and out at halftime, but I thought our kids really responded and as long as they keep going and keep working we will get this thing where we want it."
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