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‘Sick and tired of being close’: Indiana stuns Penn State in heart-stopping fashion

Michael Penix dived towards the pylon. Every Indiana football collapse weighed on the back of the quarterback’s 6-foot-3 frame. Lunging towards the pylon while an entire state held their breath. 

It was a moment a long time in the making. Both in the story of Saturday’s game and the story of Indiana football.

Indiana Football celebrates its first win over a top 10 opponent since 1987. (Kurt Spitler/HN)

Creating hope in a chaotic game

Penix, the supposed messiah of IU football, had played awfully. IU had taken a 17-7 lead into the locker room courtesy of three Penn State turnovers. IU had 10 points off two Sean Clifford interceptions.

Throughout the second half IU’s defense played valiantly, limiting Penn State. Bending but not breaking. IU still led 20-14 with under three minutes left in the fourth quarter but finally the defense broke. Jahan Dotson wide open. Clifford found him for a 60-yard touchdown. Penn State in front 21-20. 

IU fans thought Penix had one last chance. After two sacks and two incompletions it was over. There were no fans but the Indiana players’ families started to depart Memorial Stadium.

Rinse, repeat, same old Indiana. Fourth quarter lead blown again.

After so many unfair heartbreaks, the football gods gave IU a gift. With 1:47 left, Penn State got the ball after the Hoosiers’ turnover on downs. IU had one timeout. If James Franklin decided to take a knee until fourth down there would have only been around 15 seconds left on the clock. 

Instead, they handed the ball to Devyn Ford. Starting running back junior Journey Brown was unavailable because of an undisclosed medical condition announced earlier this week. The game’s starter Noah Cain had left on the game’s first drive with an injury. Instead of two experienced backs the true sophomore Ford was entrusted to finish the game. Ford had just 52 career carries coming into Saturday. 

IU allowed him a path forward hoping he would fall for the trap. When Ford realized he had taken the Hoosier bait at the 5-yard line it was too late. His forward momentum took him into the end zone. The extra point made it a 28-20 Penn State lead.

The Hoosiers had just 15 yards in the second half. Penix did not have time to throw and had been off the mark with all his receivers. But something was different than all the past IU football failures. Penix was not worried about his earlier struggles or the Hoosiers’ history of choking. 

“We are a team that always preaches ‘finish’ but we have not done that the last few years and that’s been something we have been stressing all summer long,” Penix said. “I told the offense on the last drive we’ve got to score and win the game.”

Suddenly he created hope. Penix to Whop Philyor 12 yards. Penix to freshman Javon Swinton. Penix to another new face sophomore Jacolby Hewitt. And two Penn State penalties. After five completions on seven attempts, IU was at the Penn State 1-yard line with 30 seconds left. Penix had only 11 completions coming into the drive. 

The hope plunged into the endzone. Touchdown.

IU needed a 2-point conversion to tie.

Designed run with Penix. Tie game.

The hope became belief. IU fans did not want to embrace the hope. The football gods had hurt them too much.

But the higher beings only teased IU fans. A botched Jared Smolar squib kick gave Penn State the ball at midfield. Penn State’s long range kicker Jordan Stout from 57 yards. Short. A third missed Nittany Lion field goal. Overtime.

After Penn State scored a touchdown on the overtime’s opening possession the game was back in the hands of confidence. Michael Penix Jr. On third-and-9 Penix was patient. He looked for one receiver. Covered. Looked for a second Hoosier receiver. Blanketed as the Nittany Lion secondary had done all night. Then the patience found his favorite target. Philyor. Corner of the end zone. Touchdown. His seventh straight completion. 

35 Penn State, 34 Indiana. Time for double overtime?

“One play to win it,” IU head coach Tom Allen said after the game. “We’ve been close, and I’m sick and tired of being close. I just decided, told the offensive coaches to be thinking about that.”

That final play

A 2-point conversion for the game. Confidence, poise, patience and talent took the snap. 

“All I saw was opportunity,” Penix said. “Opportunity to go out and show the world, the Indiana Hoosiers, what we’re all about.”

The opportunity was on the left side. The redshirt junior out of Tampa dashed to the left sideline. His angle got tighter and tighter. At the 3-yard line he leaped. Penn State safety Jaquan Brisker jumped towards a diving Penix. 

The messiah. Thirty-three years since the last IU win over a top-10 team. One win ever against the Nittany Lions. Five top-25 losses for Tom Allen decided by 10 points or less. Only a messiah with his entire 6-foot-3 body could change this tonight.

The messiah divided towards the pylon. An outstretched arm reached towards the orange prize. An inch deciding a program-changing victory or finding just another way to lose. But a messiah is not denied. He is never daunted. The brown of the football scraped the orange of the pylon before crashing into the white turf sideline. 

After 33 years what was a five-minute review? After the official word the balloon popped. An almost entirely empty Memorial Stadium exploded. Bloomington detonated. The state of Indiana blew up. The college football universe erupted.

Final: Indiana 36, Penn State 35. The messiah had come. The messiah had conquered.

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