Lions Escape With OT Victory

Penn State failed to put away Minnesota when it had the chance, and it nearly resulted in a loss. Luckily for the Nittany Lions, they made the most of their opportunities in overtime and improved to 4-2 overall and 2-1 in the Big Ten.

MINNEAPOLIS — The key moments in Penn State's overtime game against Minnesota at the Metrodome here Saturday made as much of an impact on the ears as they did on the eyes.

The first was a loud, ringing CLANK that left a goal post wobbling. The second was a roar from the small but vocal Golden Gopher student section when it thought its team had won. And the third was a collective groan when the students realized an official's call kept the Nittany Lions alive.

And the fourth, well, being a family website, we can't pass that one along, but we'll get to those details a little later. In the end, Penn State escaped with a 28-27 victory, and everyone in the Nittany Lion locker room liked the sound of that.

“This is a big boost for this football team,” said PSU coach Joe Paterno, whose squad won on the road for the first time this season, improving to 4-2 overall and 2-1 in the Big Ten heading into next weekend's home matchup with powerful Michigan.

“It's a good feeling because we won,” senior linebacker Paul Posluszny said. “But it shouldn't have come down to this.”

“This” was a bit of a collapse Penn State suffered in the fourth quarter. Unable to put the game away in the third stanza after taking a 14-7 lead into the locker room, the Lions found themselves in a 14-14 tie early in the fourth when Gopher running back Amir Pinnix scored from four yards out.

Penn State responded with an 82-yard scoring march, with running back Tony Hunt (31 carries for 147 yards on the day) pounding away at the Minnesota defense. Quarterback Anthony Morelli, playing despite dislocating the middle finger on his left (non-throwing) hand Thursday, ended the drive by floating a 7-yard pass to fullback Matt Hahn for a 21-14 lead.

Things appeared to be in hand when the Gophers got the ball with 2:33 left in the game, pinned at their own 14 thanks to a booming Jeremy Kapinos punt. But the PSU defense played a soft zone, and on fourth and 2 from the 22, Bryan Cupito hit receiver Logan Payne, who made a host of Lions miss while weaving his way to the PSU 36. Three plays later, the stunned PSU defense allowed Pinnix to slice into the end zone from the 1-yard line to tie it at 21-21.

State got the ball back with 1:02 left in the game and a full complement of timeouts, but elected to run out the clock and force overtime, something of a curious decision seeing that the Lions came into this game with the worst red-zone offense and defense in the Big Ten, and that the team's field-goal kicking comedy of errors continued in the Metrodome (one bobble snap, one flat-out miss).

“I didn't want to get careless in there,” Paterno said. “… If we had made a mistake down there, they had good field position. They kick a field goal and it's over.”

Penn State won the flip in overtime and chose to play defense first. And that is when the sounds began.

The Gophers had the option of picking the end of the field for the first OT session, and they obviously chose to be in front of the noisy student section. Cupito was calm, lofting a perfect third-and-10 pass to Eric Decker in the corner of the end zone. Decker made a nice catch, too, just behind cornerback Tony Davis.

“I think that was a great throw and a great catch by the wideout,” Paterno said.

The score was 27-21, and the extra point figured to make it 28-21. But a fraction of a second after Jason Giannini kicked the ball, it hit hard into the left upright, the metallic CLANK carrying throughout the two-thirds full stadium. The ball fell back into the field of play.

“I was on the field,” linebacker Dan Connor said. “… I watched it, and it slammed off and almost landed right in my hand. At that point, I knew we had a chance [to win].”

Hunt picked up a yard on the first play of Penn State's possession. Then Morelli threw two incomplete passes. Facing fourth and 9 from the 24, Morelli rolled right and whipped a pass to receiver Deon Butler. Trumaine Banks broke it up at the sideline. The crowd went nuts.

But within another fraction of a second, side judge Joe Duncan threw a flag. Banks was hit with a pass-interference penalty, giving the Lions new life at the 13. And the Minnesota student section groaned in unison.

Then they began hurling obscenities at Duncan.

Penn State attacked while the Gophers were still stunned, getting the ball to Derrick Williams on an inside handoff. He scooted around left end to the 2-yard line.

Two plays later, Hunt blasted into the end zone, his final carry on the day. Kevin Kelly made the extra point — atoning for a missed 42-yarder in the third quarter — and just like that the game was over, with Penn State maintaining possession of the Governor's Victory Bell.

“It's good that we won,” Posluszny said. “But we're all itching to get back and work on the problems we had today.”

Those problems began early.

This was Penn State's first noon kick of the season, and the Lions were as lethargic as ever in the first quarter. PSU opened with a false start by right tackle Chris Auletta, who was once again subbing for starter Levi Brown (knee sprain), on the way to a three and out.

Minnesota took advantage of its great early field position, as Cupito deftly led a six-play scoring drive which was capped when tight end Matt Spaeth found a seam in the Lion zone. Just before he was pressured by blitzing PSU linebacker Sean Lee, Cupito hit Spaeth slanting across the middle, and the senior jogged in for a 30-yard TD and 7-0 lead.

Penn State “snapped” out of its funk late in the quarter, when punt snapper Joe Cianciolo recovered Gopher return man Dominic Jones' fumble at the Minnesota 9. Having struggled on red-zone chances heading into this game, the Lions handed to Hunt twice, and he rumbled through the defense for a 6-yard score on the second touch to tie it, 7-7.

In the second quarter, it became a game of inches. Early in the period, PSU worked its way to the Gopher 9, where it faced fourth and less than a yard. Morelli tried a keeper but did not get the first down.

Later, Minnesota did practically the same thing. On fourth and inches from the Lion 14, Cupito kept and was tackled by end Josh Gaines. He lost yardage, and State took over.

PSU seemed to make the most of the reprieve when Morelli hit a streaking Williams behind the Minnesota secondary for a 56-yard gain, the longest catch of the sophomore's career and PSU's longest pass play of the season. But surprisingly, from that point on in the drive, Hunt did not touch the ball. The Lions ended up facing fourth and 9 from the 15.

On the field-goal attempt, holder Kevin Suhey bobbled the snap and took off trying to throw. His attempt was picked by John Shevlin. There were less than two minutes to play in the half, and Minnesota went conservative, drawing hearty boos from the thin Metrodome crowd.

Penn State got the ball back with 1:14 remaining after Williams returned a Justin Kucek punt 17 yards to the Minnesota 39. Penn State's offense responded. Morelli had a 24-yard hookup with Jordan Norwood and then hit Hunt on a screen. The running back charged toward the goal line and plowed into the end zone for a 15-yard TD (the first scoring catch of his career) and a 14-7 lead the Lions took into the locker room.

With the loss, Minnesota fell to 2-4 overall and 0-2 in the Big Ten. Considering the Gophers' only wins this season were blowouts of Temple and Kent State, Saturday's victory was not exactly a rousing statement that the Nittany Lions are prepared to derail now 6-0 Michigan at Beaver Stadium this week.

But it wasn't exactly a loss, either, and after falling at No. 1 Ohio State and at then No. 4 Notre Dame in September, the Nittany Lions know the difference.

“We missed some opportunities earlier in the season,” Posluszny said. “But now we have a chance to have Michigan, which is an unbelievable team, come into our house for a night game. It's going to be fun.”


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