Penn State Scores a TD. And the World Turns Upside Down.

Herb Gould

 This is why I find college football so fascinating: Everybody’s arguing about whether Indiana quarterback Michael Penix Jr.’s game-winning two-point conversion was kosher.

You know. . . the one where he stretched out and tapped the pylon with the ball. And might or might not have been down before he scored. Or out of bounds.

Sorry. I don’t really have an opinion. Other than to say what everyone on the Penn State sideline knows: The Nittany Lions never should have been in that position.

They piled up 488 yards to Indiana’s 211. They missed three field goals. Quarterback Sean Clifford, who had seven interceptions in 12 games last year, threw two in the first half at IU before bouncing back with a heroic second-half comeback.

What amazes me about Indiana’s 36-35 upset of No. 8 Penn State, though, is how the Nittany Lions opened the door to defeat by scoring the touchdown that put them ahead 28-20 with 1:42 left in regulation.

This game—wrenching for Penn State, thrilling for Indiana—is really a story about how a young player’s instincts took over—and changed the course of a football season.

Not just for Penn State. But the entire Big Ten. Maybe even the entire national championship race.

With a first down at the Indiana 14 yardline after Indiana had lost the ball on downs with 1:47 left and had only one timeout left, Penn State probably could have taken a knee for four downs and escaped with a 21-20 win.

It makes sense that James Franklin wanted to punch the ball closer if Indiana's defense wanted to let Penn State score. Another first down at the 4 yardline would have given the Nittany Lions a fifth take-the-knee down, which surely would have sealed the deal.

With Journey Brown sidelined by a pre-game medical condition and backup Noah Cain out after an early-game injury, Penn State was down to third-string tailback Devyn Ford.

Franklin and his staff had gone over the situation with their players. Even if Indiana’s defense opted to let them walk in, the Nittany Lions were not supposed to score.

And yet, there was Ford (No. 28), crossing the goalline. In the photo above, Hoosier DB Bryant Fitzgerald (No. 31) jubilantly signals a touchdown for the Nittany Lions.

The purpose here is not to come down on Ford. A numbing mistake, yes? But he was a little-used backup, a college kid doing what came naturally. Even if it will be remembered in some Penn State circles as something akin to ``Wrong Way'' Riegels racing toward the wrong end zone in the 1929 Rose Bowl.

Given the gift of time, Indiana marched down the field for a game-tying touchdown and two-point conversion to send the game into overtime. After Penn State notched a TD and extra point, Indiana answered with its own TD. Then immediately went for two and made it—with Penix extending the ball to the pylon..

That gave the Hoosiers the euphoria of their first win over a top-10 team since 1987. And changed the course of the Big Ten season on the first Saturday it ventured out from under the Covid-19 crisis.

Here’s what that means: The highly anticipated top-10 showdown between Ohio State and Penn State is no longer a big deal. It is, though, now filled with peril for the Buckeyes and the Big Ten. Yes, it is unfathomable at this point how the team that lost to Indiana is going to upset the Buckeyes. But college football is no stranger to the unfathomable.

For Ohio State, a road loss to an unbeaten Penn State would have been a major setback. But falling to a one-loss Penn State would be outrageous misfortune.

If both had been unbeaten, there might even have been scenarios in which both reach the College Football Playoff. That’s gone. So are Ohio State excuses for a stumble in Happy Valley.

Again, that might not seem likely in light of the way Penn State played at Indiana. But far stranger things have happened on autumn Saturdays.

Also potentially diminished: The resume of No. 13 Michigan, which looked very solid in its top-25 thrashing of Minnesota. Maybe even No. 9 Wisconsin. Penn State plays Michigan, which plays Wisconsin. 

If there’s one thing the SEC has taught the world, when it comes to advancing your playoff cause, it is—avoid bad losses like the one the Nittany Lions endured at Indiana.

None of that may matter when the final stages of this unprecedented season arrive. Then again, with fewer data points in a season where many leagues are not playing non-conference games, every little thing is going to matter.

And no matter how this season ends, certain Penn State alums will keep this game etched forever on their list of abominable memories. Of that, I am certain.