BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — It would be easy, very easy, to pat myself on the back for calling the upset. I thought that Indiana could beat No. 8-ranked Penn State on Saturday in the long-awaited season opener, and even went out on the limb and wrote that it would indeed happen, even though the Hoosiers hadn't beaten a top-10 team in 33 years.
But here's the problem. There wasn't a single thing that I wrote on Thursday that actually came to fruition in the wild 36-35 overtime win.
Not one single thing. Pure genius, right?
There's so much to get to — oh, so much — in Indiana's 36-35 overtime win against the Nittany Lions, who came into the game with a 22-1 record all-time against the Hoosiers. And even though there were no fans in the stands, in a few decades there will be thousands of rooters who will say they were there to witness one of the greatest victories in Indiana football history.
A little white lie that will feel so good.
You all know I'm a glass half-full guy, and I'm probably more positive than I should be in doing this job. So with that being said, I'm not about to put a damper on this celebration. Party on, B-Town.
But let's be realistic, too. Indiana had no business winning that game on Saturday in a Memorial Stadium that was completely empty, except for a few cardboard cutouts and friends and family.
No business? Absolutely, if only because Indiana NEVER wins games this way. When they blow leads, they usually blow them for good. When their best players stink up the joint for most or the game, they usually lose. When one simple play ends the game and you don't make it, Indiana usually loses.
All that happened. But Indiana won anyway.
There are four people in particular that I really need to talk about, quarterback Michael Penix Jr., tight end Peyton Hendershot,defensive coordinator Kane Wommack and Indiana coach Tom Allen. They were all part of my pre-game scenario for winning.
Sure, I missed the boat in a lot of ways. But what a win, what a heck of a win.
Indiana finally has its signature win under Tom Allen.
'I can see Michael Penix Jr. having a huge game'
I said that earlier in the week because I was convinced that Penix was going to be one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten this season. But let's be honest, for the first 58 minutes and change against Penn State, he wasn't very good at all. Not good at all. (Repeated for emphasis.)
During that time, with Indiana trailing 28-20, Penix had very pedestrian numbers. With the game just about over, he had completed just 11 of 27 passes for only 99 yards. Social media was being brutal to the left-hander from Tampa. They wanted him gone — on the first day of the season.
So how about a huge TWO MINUTES instead?
During the final drive and overtime, all Penix did was go 8-for-9 passing for 71 yards. He scored on a quarterback sneak with 22 seconds to go, then scored on a running play on that two-point conversion to tie the game. In overtime, he hit Whop Philyor for a touchdown and then scored on the two-point conversion to win the game after a lengthy booth review.
Do you take two minutes of great after 58 minutes of average — or below average? Of course you do. Michael Penix Jr. will always remember this as one hell of a victory.
As well he should.
And I'll remember it as one hell of a victory for the kid from Tampa, too, flying throughe air with his team on his back, reaching out for that pylon.
"I had to make a play, and I couldn't let the team down. I gave it my all, relentless effort,'' Penix said afterward. "We just stayed positive through the whole game. It shows you just can't count us out. We've been stressing all summer long to finish, and to wait for this opportunity. We finished.''
And that final two-point conversion? Was he in?
"In my mind, I scored, as soon as I did it,'' he said.
Yep, you gotta believe.
'Maybe it's Peyton Hendershot who's the best tight end in the game'
Penn State has Pat Freiermuth, an All-America tight end who's a sure-fire early-round NFL draft pick. But when I did a radio interview, I thought Indiana's Peyton Hendershot was going to make a name for himself on Saturday, too.
Turns out, that didn't happen, either. In fact, it was Hendershot who had the game locked up for the Hoosiers – and he let it slip away.
On a critical third down with just 3:24 to go and Indiana clinging to a 20-14 lead, Penix found Hendershot over the middle and, after his defender had tripped, he was wide open. Penix hit him right in the hands – and he dropped it.
If he catches that one, the Hoosiers get a first down and basically run out the clock or, if they had to, kick a field goal to take a nine-point lead. Instead, Hendershot didn't make the play — and then the roof fell in during Penn State's comeback.
The good thing about making mistakes and still winning is you learn from them. I wouldn't be surprised to see Hendershot has a huge game next weekend. Two catches for 13 yards was all he had, but there's more to come. Much more.
"I can see the much-improved Indiana defense making big plays and forcing turnovers.''
Indiana forced three turnovers in the first half and scored 17 points after the miscues. That part, I got it right, but ... yeah, there's always a but.
The Hoosiers' defense did a lot of things right against Penn State, but none of it was done late in the game when it mattered the most. They allowed a 60-yard touchdown strike with 2:30 to go to give Penn State a 21-20 lead, and they allowed an easy Penn State scoring drive in overtime.
This group, which has a ton of promise, didn't have an answer late. But they also did a lot of things right — stopping the running game, forcing turnovers — and there's a lot to build off of. Micah McFadden (11 tackles) had a great game, and so did Jaylin Williams and Jamar Johnson.
Kudos to defensive coordinator Kane Wommack for having this group ready. They get a pass from me for what happened late because they were gassed. This was their first game in 10 months, and they were out on the field all night, it seemed. Penn State had the ball for 40 minutes, 25 seconds. Penn State ran 87 plays to Indiana's 62. That's a lot of work.
Learning to finish, well that's still on them. We'll see that improve soon too, I presume.
Tom Allen, he finished this one
Tom Allen has heard it all since he came home to Indiana four years ago. The New Castle native had lofty goals for this program, but people laughed at him, mocked him, made fun of him.
And he didn't care.
When he was hired, it had been 50 years since Indiana had won the Big Ten, 26 years since they'd won a bowl game and 10 years since they'd had a winning season. He wrote those numbers on a board and told everyone in the program that they were going to change that.
He believed, and he told everyone that if they didn't believe, they should just leave.
Last year's 8-5 season and first-ever Florida bowl fixed some of that. And after Saturday, he still believes that Indiana can contend in the Big Ten. That's why he went for two. Playing it safe doesn't get you anywhere.
'I've feel so blessed to be the leader of this program, for believing, for staying the course, and for finding a way to win,'' Allen said. "One play to win it. We've been close, and I'm sick and tired of just being close. We had one play from the 3 to win it. In my gut, going for it seemed like the right thing to do.''
"It's a big win, no question, but you still have to turn around and play next week. I expected to win this game, but you have to prove it. When you come back like we did, that's what's so powerful. Since I've been here, we've usually lost those games. Those kind of games can be crippling for you.''
Keep the faith, he says. Work hard, keep winning and, regardless — don't blink!
"I said it from the beginning, and I gave it the 50-26-10 thing. The 26 and 10, maybe they figured those could happen, but they laughed at me about the 50 part. But the bottom line is we're building a program that wants to win a Big Ten championship. It was a monumental win for this program, no question about it.''
Yes it was. If you want to debate the validity of the call on the last play, so be it. That's Penn State's problem, not Indiana's. The Hoosiers have had plenty of heartbreak through the years, so they're not going to feel sorry for anyone.
Nor should we.
Biggest win in a long time? No doubt about. The only number that matters is 36-35.
Related stories on Indiana football
- GAME STORY: Indiana stuns No. 8 Penn State with dramatic finish in overtime, winning season opener 36-35. CLICK HERE
- GOING FOR 2: Indiana quarterback Michael Penix Jr. and his teammates talk about his game-winning two-point conversion. CLICK HERE
- LIVE BLOG: Here's how the day played out for Indiana and Penn State in real time in our weekly GameDay Live Blog. CLICK HERE