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Mistakes too much for resurgent IU football to overcome against Big Ten elite, again

STATE COLLEGE, Penn. — Even for all the bounce backs, the touchdowns scored in the face of a roaring, pom-pom waving student section, the momentum-shifting turnovers and miraculous Peyton Ramsey moments, No. 24 Indiana was close, but not close enough. Again.

Even for a season already standing alone as IU’s best in 25 years, it was mistakes that resembled the other 24 that were just too much to overcome.

Indiana dropped its third game of the year at Penn State, 34-27. (Jared Rigdon/HN)

IU’s four-game winning streak and its AP ranking came screeching to a halt at Beaver Stadium. There was only so much Ramsey could overcome in a 34-27 loss to Penn State.

“It hurts,” Ramsey said. “So many opportunities on both sides of the ball that we just didn’t capitalize. At the end of the day that’s what it’s about. When you get your chances you gotta make ’em. We just didn’t do it.”

There was the fake punt that wasn’t, placed at the center of it all. True freshman long snapper Sean Wracher sent the ball off the shoulder of a Peyton Hendershot not expecting to get it. Penn State scored a touchdown two plays later.

“Just a mistake, what do you say,” IU head coach Tom Allen said. “He was frustrated with himself. When he came off he realized it. Just unfortunate. Pretty costly for sure.”

Or at least it was one in a series of narrative-fitting mistakes in a season that has been dedicated to breaking it.

On the ensuing IU drive Donavan Hale dropped a should-have-been touchdown. In a game ultimately decided by seven points, it looms large.

In the first half, James Head forced a fumble when he sacked Sean Clifford, before IU gave it right back on the last play its best receiver saw.

When Philyor found himself sandwiched between the helmets of two Penn State defenders, crushing his head from both sides, and lost the ball in the process. He stayed down on the field, before heading to the locker room in concussion protocol. He wouldn’t return to the sideline again.

The sum of it all was too much for Ramsey — in one of the best games of his career, throwing for 371 yards on the road against a top-15 total defense — to overcome.

“Peyton (is) just tremendously effective, tough, gritty, seems like I say that all the time, don’t I,” Allen said.

Just when the mistakes seemed to be too much, the injuries and turnovers too costly, the dropped touchdowns and questionable play calls too significant, IU’s newest captain gave his team a chance.

Ramsey had to adjust to being without his top receiver in Philyor. He had to do it surrounded by 106,000 voices pelting down on him.

In his second trip to Penn State, Ramsey handled the environment. He handled a Penn State pass rush breathing down his neck for most of the second half, pushing around IU’s offensive line that had allowed the fewest sacks in the Big Ten. Ramsey had three total touchdowns — one through the air, two with his legs.

After losing his job to begin the 2019 season, Ramsey has proven time and time again just how important he is to IU’s offense. He’s come in relief of Michael Penix in all but two games this season and developed into the quarterback that has led IU to bowl eligibility.

He’s prepared every week as the starter as Penix looked on from the sideline, his white jersey pulled over a red sweatshirt and sling holding his right arm.

Even without the quarterback of the future in Penix, and even in a game where IU showed flashes of teams of years past, it is the quarterback of the past who stayed that showed how much has changed.

Ramsey had IU as close as it has been in years to winning in State College for the first time ever, but not close enough.

“I was highly disappointed,” Allen said. “We didn’t come here to be close.”

The Hoosiers have learned how to finish this season. They made plays in the biggest moments in games against Maryland and Nebraska.

IU didn’t finish this one. A back-breaking eight-minute drive ended any IU hope as Clifford pushed across the goal line and into the endzone on a fourth down.

IU didn’t finish the same way it didn’t finish against Michigan State. A late drive from the Big Ten establishment sealed the fate of a suddenly up and coming bottom feeder.

“Day by day, step by step, we’re building this thing,” Allen said. “Next step is winning these games.”

IU still hasn’t shed its narrative of close games against top-tier teams. It still hasn’t had the breakthrough it’s searched so long for. But it’s getting closer, even if it resembles so many losses of years past.

“If you don’t see it, I think you’re not paying much attention,” Allen said.

Allen said Monday that just because IU was ranked doesn’t mean it arrived. Even for the season it’s had, cracking the top 25 ranking and its best start since 1993, IU isn’t there just yet.

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