Jordan Wells, TheHoosier.com
The Hoosiers lost to No. 4 Penn State, 45-14, on Saturday, and their defeat began before the ball was even snapped.
Penn State junior running back Saquon Barkley fielded Griffin Oakes’ opening kickoff at his own 2-yard line, easily weaved his way through through teh IU kick coverage and high-stepped two Hoosier defenders inside the 10-yard line to give the Nittany Lions an immediate lead.
Pair the opening kickoff with a fumbled punt return by junior wide receiver J-Shun Harris that was returned for a touchdown, and the special teams surrendered 14 points on two plays.
That’s unacceptable, IU head coach Tom Allen said.
“I have no answer,” Allen said. “Itss so disappointing. so disappointing. Protecting the football, the opening kickoff — that’s just inexcusable. That’s just not what we do. Yeah, he’s a great player, but nobody touched him. When you have a team like this, you cannot give them those opportunities, and we did.”
Coming into the weekend, special teams appeared to be a strength for IU, as it had appeared in the Top-10 in Football Outsiders’ S&P ratings in the last two weeks. Harris had returned a punt for a touchdown in both of the last two games, and freshman punter Haydon Whitehead and senior kicker Griffin Oakes were coming along.
But the special teams shortcomings against Penn State had nothing to do with kicking. Oakes didn’t kick any field goals, and Whitehead kicked eight punts an average of 38.1 yards, usually deep in his own territory.
These special teams errors had to do with coverage and Harris’ fumble and senior defensive back Jayme Thompson’s roughing the punter penalty that gave Penn State a first down late in the first quarter. Allen went as far as to count Thompson’s penalty as a fifth turnover, since it allowed the Nittany Lions to score a touchdown shortly after.
“This was not an effort issue,” Allen said. “This was not a want-to issue. This was an execution issue. I’m going to put it on special teams. The offense didn’t come to play in the second half, and we’ve got to get that right, but special teams — very, very disappointing.”
Falling behind 28-0, with the opening kickoff, returned fumble, a 39-yard touchdown drive after a Morgan Ellison fumble and then a 73-yard touchdown drive after Thompson’s roughing the punter penalty, the IU offense was behind the eight ball and could never find a way around it.
It was able to score 14 unanswered points in the second quarter, but after halftime, the scoring stopped. Sophomore running back Devonte Williams would fumble on a crucial drive to stay in the game in the third quarter, and freshman quarterback Peyton Ramsey would throw his first career interception as well.
Overall, Penn State would score 21 points off turnovers. Count the penalty in the first quarter, and the Nittany Lions had 28 points off turnovers by Allen’s standards.
“It’s extremely tough, especially when you’re going up against a top team in the country,” senior linebacker Tegray Scales said. “We didn’t execute. All three phases are huge, but giving that up on special teams. I don’t think you can beat any team by giving up touchdowns like this and that.”
The turnovers and the early Penn State scores far overshadowed the IU defense's ability to limit Barkley — a top Heisman candidate and Penn State’s leading rusher and receiver — to 56 yards on the ground (2.8 yards per carry) and 51 yards through the air. Barkley led the nation in all-purpose yards from scrimmage with an average of 253.3 per game before Saturday.
In 2016, IU halted Barkley to just 58 yards on the ground.
But a lot of what IU experienced in State College, Pennsylvania, on Saturday wasn’t too new. The Hoosiers also turned the ball over five times last season against the Nittany Lions, and they have never beaten Penn State in Beaver Stadium (0-10). The series moves to 20-1 in Penn State’s favor since 1993.
The toughest part to accept, Allen said, is that the Hoosiers gave so much of teh game away.
“The rest of it, to me, is just getting things cleaned up and consistently running the football, executing and scoring more points and making sure that we don’t give away games and give away points, which is what we did in the first half,” Allen said. “it makes it really hard.”
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