BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — After it was over, Bill O’Brien sat down quietly in a place called The Hoosier Room. On either side of him was Indiana’s “Wall of Honor,” trumpeting the program’s greatest accomplishments.
“Copper Bowl champions.”
“Insight.com Bowl participants.”
“1967 Big Ten tri-champions.”
Saturday’s game won’t go up there along with them. But for Penn State, it felt like a miserable bit of history against a team that has never had much to celebrate.
Penn State lost to Indiana for the first time in 17 meetings, falling 44-24. Worse was what it signified — the perpetually downtrodden Hoosiers are getting better. And the Nittany Lions are hurting.
They collapsed in the fourth quarter in the lukewarm atmoshpere of Memorial Stadium, suffering the same sort of meltdown that had hit the Hoosiers year after year in this series.
The Hoosiers scored 23 points in the final frame, smashing open what had been a sloppy but tight contest just moments earlier. Three touchdowns in a span of 3:40 sent the Lions (3-2, 0-1 Big Ten) to their worst loss in 17 games under O’Brien.
“Indiana coached and played better than us,” a disappointed but calm O’Brien said afterward from that Hoosier Room. “That’s why we lost.”
O’Brien has a tightrope to walk when trying to explain his squad’s struggles.
It’s in his best interest to remind all that his roster is already feeling the sting of the NCAA sanctions. In a pair of radio interviews on Thursday, he made a point of mentioning that he is working with 61 scholarship players at the moment — presumably not counting injured players nor a handful of walk-ons who were awarded temporary grants at the start of the season.
He cited that number again on Saturday after the loss.
“I don’t think in any stretch of anybody’s imagination that this is a normal Penn State team,” O’Brien said. “Sixty-one kids on scholarship and 40 walk-ons.
“We coached very average today. And we can’t coach average in this situation.”
But he has been quick to follow that by saying that handicap can’t be a crutch for him or for the program to lean on, repeatedly blaming himself for the performance.
“It’s not an excuse,” senior guard John Urschel said. “It can’t be.”
For the first time in the series, Penn State was the team that wilted down the stretch. Indiana (3-2, 1-0) had plenty of good shots to beat the Lions since the latter joined the Big Ten but could never come through with the game on the line.
That changed dramatically this year.
An early fourth-quarter touchdown gave the Hoosiers a two-score lead. They promptly rejected the Lions on a fourth-down try from their own 33-yard line and found the end zone again two plays later.
Penn State fumbled the ensuing kickoff and Indiana scored on the next play. Suddenly the scoreboard read 42-17. The Lions weren’t just losing to the Hoosiers, they were being routed.
“We didn’t play well across the board,” senior linebacker Glenn Carson said. “It hurts. It definitely hurts big.”
Indeed, Penn State struggled in all three phases.
The offense ran a whopping 93 plays and gained 410 yards but still never seemed to get into a rhythm. Christian Hackenberg had career highs in completions (30), touchdowns (three), yards (340) and set a school record for attempts with 55.
That the Lions threw 55 times against a team that was surrendering nearly 250 yards per game on the ground was a bad sign by itself.
On defense, the unit came up with a pair of key red zone stops in the first half, but Indiana’s breakneck pace wore the Lions down.
“It seemed like we weren’t on the same page out there today,” said linebacker Mike Hull, who was returning from a knee injury. “They run a fast-tempo offense, so it messes with you after a while.”
Special teams contributed to a shaky start as a bad snap on one field goal attempt and a low kick on another ensured that the Lions came up empty on two productive drives in the first half.
Beyond the details of this particular loss, however, is a gnawing feeling for the program.
History says this was a landmark win for the Hoosiers. But with Penn State’s prestige damaged by scandal and sanctions, what does reality say?
“We can’t hype this game any more than it needs to be,” Indiana safety Greg Heban said. “After the game, we were excited about the win. But we weren’t super shocked about it.”