Mistakes Nearly Doom Lions

After a horrid start, Penn State rallies to overcome unranked Indiana on Senior Day at Beaver Stadium.

Just before he left the team hotel Friday night, Joe Paterno warned his players to be ready for the early kickoff the next day against Indiana.

“It's a 12 o'clock game,” he told them. “I don't want to see you being lackadaisical, or these guys are going to come out and beat you.”

Maybe he should have said it a little more emphatically. Penn State's first half was a comedy of errors.

Looking at the stat sheet, it's hard to believe the Nittany Lions defeated Indiana, much less by double figures. Had the defense not come on strong, stopping the Hoosiers from pretty much the second quarter on, and even producing the go-ahead touchdown on Navorro Bowman's 73-yard interception return in the third quarter, there would likely have been a lot of disappointed seniors trotting out of Beaver Stadium for the final time.

Where to begin? How about with the special teams. The Nittany Lions fumbled two punt returns and a kickoff return, and saw another fumbled punt negated when Indiana was flagged for interference. They also missed a 34-yard field goal, as Collin Wagner pushed the ball into the right upright. It got so bad that when Graham Zug fair caught a punt in the third quarter, a cheer arose from the crowd.

Paterno said the problems were contagious. “You make a couple of bad plays and everybody starts pressing a little bit,” he explained. “It's an emotional game. It's a game of poise, and sometimes you slip a little bit and pay the consequences for it. We just didn't play very well in the first half.”

Zug had a tough day. One of the fumbled punt returns was his -- Drew Astorino had the other -- and he tried to return a punt that came down inside the 10-yard line, getting only to the 7.

“It was definitely a frustrating first half,” he said. “But you can't let that affect you. There are still two more quarters after that.”

True enough, but the Lions picked up right where they left off on the second-half kickoff, as Jerome Hayes lost the ball at the end of an otherwise impressive return. “I was trying to stiff-arm a guy to my left, and somebody came up from the backside and knocked the ball loose,” Hayes said of the fumble, which Penn State recovered. “I was swinging it. I've got to keep the ball tighter.”

The Nittany Lions had big trouble on special teams a week earlier against Ohio State, as the Buckeyes compiled a 130-0 advantage in punt return yards. Perhaps sensing that the drumbeat of negativity was about to get even louder, Paterno downplayed Saturday's miscues, saying “I thought the special teams did well except for the two punts we mishandled.” But even though the Lions didn't allow a single punt return yard against Indiana, Hayes seemed certain that special teams would be emphasized in practice again this week.

“We did a good job covering the field, we did a good job blocking,” he said. “But we did a lousy job with ball security, so I can guarantee there will be ball-security drills on Monday.”

The offense had trouble as well, at least initially, with Daryll Clark tossing two interceptions in the first quarter. The first was on a tipped pass on the team's first possession and set up an Indiana touchdown. The second put an end to a promising drive as Nick Polk stepped in front of a pass in the left flat after the Lions had reached the Indiana 20.

By that time, the Hoosiers were up 10-0, and an upset seemed entirely likely. Clark was stunned.

“It was a little hard at first,” he said, “because you can't believe stuff like that is happening. You're slapping yourself, 'Why would you do such a thing?' ”

All told, Penn State turned the ball over three times in the first quarter, its worst showing since a three-turnover quarter against Michigan State in 2006.

But the offense came together in the second half, and Clark ended up completing 11 of 16 passes in the second half for 107 yards.

“We stayed together,” the senior quarterback said. “The coaches stayed with me and said, 'Don't worry about it. The best thing you can do is put it behind you and try to conduct some drives.' ”

The mistakes made for a bittersweet postgame atmosphere. There was a recognition that a similar effort against a better opponent -- such as next week's opponent, Michigan State -- could lead to defeat. But there was also a sense of relief and accomplishment, as Penn State overcame its miscues and sent everyone home happy on Senior Day. Paterno put it best. Said the coach, “All's well that ends well.”

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