Following Indiana’s loss at Ohio State two weeks ago, head coach Tom Allen addressed the critical moments in football. His belief is that there’s a window in each and every game where a few plays, one or two series, can determine the final outcome.
In Saturday’s 33-28 loss to No. 18 Penn State, that aforementioned window came with just over 12 minutes left in the fourth quarter. Leading 26-21, Nittany Lions punter Blake Gillikin booted the ball 45-yards downfield to potent Indiana return man J-Shun Harris.
Harris made the catch and darted through the middle of the field. Seven yards into his return, Penn state safety Jonathan Sutherland popped the ball straight out of Harris’ hands as fellow defensive back Nick Scott pounced on the fumble. Five plays and 32 yards later, the Nittany Lions had themselves a 33-21 lead following senior quarterback Trace McSorley’s 4-yard touchdown scamper.
“Losing the ball on offense and then losing the ball on special teams was a really costly mistake, and I thought special teams really hurt us today,” Allen said referencing both Harris and freshman running back Ronnie Walker’s fumbles. “That was to me the glaring thing that I’m very disappointed in, and not good enough.”
For an Indiana team that is still wandering a meandering path to a breakthrough win, Harris’ fumble and kick coverage gaffes impeded its chances of success Saturday night.
On three returns, the Penn State duo of senior Johnathan Thomas and redshirt freshman receiver KJ Hamler torched Indiana’s kick off team for 173 yards.
Addressing the coverage issues postgame, Allen was frank in his special teams play. He pointed to both leverage and youth as being the primary reasons for blunders.
“We have nine true freshmen — nine freshmen on our kickoff coverage unit,” Allen said. “That’s a fact. But they’re good players. They’re just young.”
Trying to avoid further damage after Hamler took his first two kicks 58 and 21 yards, respectively, redshirt sophomore kicker Jared Smolar directed a pooch kick to senior linebacker Koa Farmer. Then came the breaking point.
After Indiana took a 21-20 lead on a 3-yard Stevie Scott touchdown plunge, Smolar lined up to boot another kick downfield.
Again attempting to avoid Hamler, Smolar guided the ball to Thomas. Fielding the kick at his goal line, Thomas weaved through the Indiana defense, soaring 95-yards before stepping out of bounds at the IU five-yard line.
McSorley finished the job on the ensuing play with a scramble off a run-pass option to put Penn State ahead 26-21.
“To me it’s really, really frustrating to give up those – to play so well on offense and defense and give up those kind of return yards,” Allen said. “It just makes me want to puke.”
That said, Indiana had plenty of their own special teams chances. On a windy afternoon in Bloomington, Penn State returners combined for three muffed punts. They salvaged all three. That’s an anomaly.
Indiana also recovered an onside kick after Scott fumbled the bounce to give the Hoosiers a shot at redemption with 49 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. A sack and a holding penalty negated any chance of victory there.
Allen referenced breaking through in his postgame press conference, as he does seemingly every time Indiana loses a tight contest to one of the Big Ten’s elite. The narrative is overblown at this point, yet there was a belief and intensity in his voice that Indiana is capable of that signature win.
Special teams lapses crippled the Hoosiers Saturday night. But Tom Allen won’t let that define this team.
“You go back, you evaluate, and you stay the course, and you keep doing the little things right over and over again,” Allen said. “It takes tremendous mental toughness to do that because it’s easy to get discouraged, but this team will not get discouraged because they believe in what we’re doing, and I can see it in their eye, and we’re going to get back in here early in the morning after we evaluate everything tonight and get ready to take on the Minnesota Golden Gophers up in Minneapolis.”