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Keys to Victory: Indiana can beat Penn State by learning from these three plays

The wait is over. Indiana football hosts No. 8 Penn State this Saturday at Memorial Stadium in the season opener. 

IU is looking for a breakthrough win under Tom Allen. IU has defeated Penn State just once in 23 tries dating back to 1993. The lone victory was in 2013 by the Nate Sudfield-led Hoosiers in Memorial Stadium.

Furthermore, IU is searching for its first Top 25 victory since Kevin Wilson was head coach in 2016 and the Hoosiers knocked off No. 17 Michigan State.

In fact, the Hoosiers’ last victory over an AP Top 10 team was in 1987 when Bill Mallory’s Hoosiers went to Columbus and thumped No. 9 Ohio State 31-10.

Will IU have a history-breaking, program-defining Saturday?

The answer stems from three plays in IU’s 2019 loss to Penn State that perfectly illustrate how Indiana can defeat the Nittany Lions.

Limiting Sean Clifford’s legs, especially on Third Down

As the pocket collapsed around Sean Clifford, the Penn State quarterback scrambled ahead towards the first down marker. Clifford reached the sticks before heading out of bounds for a key third-down conversion.

It was a memorable play in a nine-minute fourth-quarter drive in last year’s game against IU that ended with a Nittany Lion touchdown sealing the game. Clifford finished the game with 55 rushing yards and two touchdowns.

IU’s defense slowed down Penn State for much of that Saturday in Happy Valley but on the game’s biggest plays they could not get off the field. The Hoosier defense was just 7-for-16 on stopping Penn State on third and fourth downs. 

Coming into this year’s game, IU defensive coordinator Kane Wommack has addressed Clifford’s running ability on third down as a major focus. Furthermore, a talking point all offseason for the Hoosier defense to take the next step is getting off the field on third down. A more experienced and mature defense will be expected to have improved situational awareness on these plays.

Offensive line giving enough time and protection of Michael Penix

Peyton Ramsey stepped up in the pocket looking for a big play downfield last year in State College. Suddenly Penn State’s Shaka Toney was there throwing IU’s quarterback to the ground for a big fourth-quarter sack.

Penn State’s defensive line will be the strength of the Nittany Lion defense again this season. Toney is back for his senior season. And while fellow defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos is now playing on Sundays with the Carolina Panthers, Jayson Oweh is the next Nittany Lion defensive lineman who has the attention of NFL scouts.

Saturday will be a big challenge for the IU offensive line. Starters Simon Stepaniak and Hunter Littlejohn both graduated. Now a young Hoosier offensive line will face one of the most talented defensive lines in the country.

The good news for the Hoosiers is they have the skill players to exploit Penn State’s secondary. They will need the offensive line to give Michael Penix enough time to get the ball to those weapons.

Furthermore, Penix needs to be protected. The redshirt-sophomore quarterback will be trying to complete a college season for the first time in his college career. A collapsing pocket forcing Penix to run or take hits is dangerous for the injury-prone quarterback. Against a potent Nittany Lions defensive line Penix will need help from the trenches to keep him and the IU offense afloat.

Avoiding big second-half mistakes

Fourth and one at midfield and IU had a strange formation for a third-quarter punt in State College. The snap went to Peyton Hendershot who was quickly swallowed up by a pack of Nittany Lions. Turnover on downs. Penn State would score a touchdown to go up by 10 two plays later. The botched punt would endure mockery on Twitter.

Time and time again in the Tom Allen and Kevin Wilson eras, the Hoosiers have found every imaginable way to blow chances at signature-program changing victories. For the first time under Allen, IU has the talent and experience to compete on a level playing field with most teams in the country.

Last year IU actually outgained Penn State by 90 yards. Penalties, botched plays, mental mistakes, poor clock management and special teams gaffes — Hoosiers fans are tired of seeing them. IU does not have excuses for these boneheaded mistakes this season. 

If IU can execute and stay disciplined in a close fourth quarter, the Hoosiers could pull off a historic victory on Saturday. 

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