With a 4th and 1 on Indiana football’s 29-yard line, trailing 24-21, head coach Tom Allen faced a difficult decision.
With just under six minutes remaining in Saturday’s contest between Indiana and No. 10 Penn State in State College, PA, Allen opted to punt, indicating a high-level of trust in his defense. The gamble paid off.
The Hoosiers, who ultimately fell 33-24, allowed virtually nothing on the first two downs, and on the third play, Penn State sophomore quarterback Drew Allar launched an errant throw that fell into the waiting hands of Indiana redshirt senior defensive back Josh Sanguinetti for an interception.
Set up at Penn State’s 21-yard line with just over five minutes to play, redshirt freshman Brendan Sorsby had an opportunity to seal a season-defining performance — he had thrown for 269 yards and three touchdowns to that point — with a signature drive.
Instead, neither Sorsby’s right arm nor his legs, which had kept Indiana competitive against Penn State throughout the game, would be utilized. For three consecutive plays, Sorsby turned into the backfield and handed the ball off to senior running back Josh Henderson, who mustered just two yards on his trio of carries.
“When we got to third down, we talked real quickly and said, ‘hey we’re in field goal range, don’t risk a takeaway,’” Allen said after the loss. “We thought it was the smart thing to do to not put ourselves in a position to give away those points and lose the game that way.”
With roughly three minutes remaining in the game, Allen sent the field goal unit on the field to try and tie the game. Redshirt junior Chris Freeman knocked the 35-yard try through the uprights, tying the game at 24 apiece.
Allen grinned and pumped his fists in the air in jubilation after the kick. In the waning minutes, in one of the toughest road environments in college football, Indiana was on equal footing with one of the nation’s best.
That joy quickly soured. On the third play of Penn State’s drive, Allar took a quick drop back and immediately glanced toward the right sideline. He uncorked an arching pass, forcing everyone to turn their heads.
Indiana junior defensive back Jordan Grier seemed to misjudge the ball’s descension toward the turf and Penn State junior receiver KeAndre Lambert-Smith capitalized. Lambert-Smith hauled in the pass no more than a step ahead of Grier and tiptoed his way down the sideline into the end zone for a 57-yard score.
“Got to win those critical situations,” Allen said. “Last three minutes of the games it’s all tied up. Got to find a way to finish.”
All the momentum the Hoosiers previously held was sapped. Even with 1:46 remaining for Sorsby to try and engineer a game-tying drive, it would be a difficult task given Penn State’s ferocious pass rush paired with the raucous Beaver Stadium crowd.
On the first play of the possession, Indiana redshirt tight end James Bomba was left isolated to try and pass protect against Penn State sophomore defensive end Dani Dennis-Sutton. With a quick rip move, Dennis-Sutton blew by Bomba around the edge and got home to Sorsby, jarring the ball loose in the process.
Neither team could scoop the ball as it continued to roll backward, and it was ultimately knocked out of the back of the end zone for a safety. Penn State gained a 33-24 advantage, all but sealing the victory.
Indiana, which had an opportunity to beat Penn State for just the third time in program history and take down an AP top ten team for the first time since 1987, was left with the same result it has endured for the last three weeks — a disappointing defeat.
“It can get discouraging,” Allen said about the mounting losses. “But I can’t let these guys get discouraged. I can’t let them doubt themselves. I can’t let them fall into that trap.”
With a missed field goal and the second muffed punt in the last two games, the Hoosiers’ special teams unit continued to make costly mistakes. Still, aided by a trio of long touchdown passes for Sorsby, the first two combining for 159 yards, Indiana’s offense had perhaps its best overall showing of the season.
The defense, which hounded Allar all afternoon and held the second-best rushing attack in the Big Ten to just 132 yards on the ground, consistently made key stops. But late in the game, down just 3 points and 21 yards away from the end zone, Allen and offensive coordinator Rod Carey went conservative.
Instead of allowing Sorsby to try and spearhead what could have been an upset of monumental proportions, Allen played to tie the game. Now, at 2-6 and 0-5 in conference play, Allen said the Hoosiers’ locker room is dejected.
With four games remaining in the season, Indiana appears to have made some strides on both sides of the ball, but they haven’t shown up in the win column. So, for another season, Allen and the Hoosiers are left trying to find moral victories.