BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — John Urschel was the first Penn State player into the visiting team media center — the Hoosier Room deep inside Memorial Stadium — where framed pictures commemorating only nine teams in Indiana program history that reached bowl games hang on the walls.
Soon, the dimly lit room was aglow as TV cameras snapped on, their lights illuminating the Penn State offensive lineman’s bearded face. He spoke softly and quietly into the 20 or so microphones and voice recorders pointed his way. Soon, his teammates followed suit — Mike Hull, Glenn Carson, DaQuan Jones, Jordan Lucas, Miles Dieffenbach and Christian Hackenberg.
The Penn State quarterback sat at a table alone, a blue Penn State ballcap pulled down tightly over his forehead, its bill casting a long shadow over his face.
Carson spoke for them all.
“It just comes down to never giving up,” he said following Penn State’s 44-24 loss to Indiana. “Those two losses were very tough at the beginning of last season just like this loss is really tough for us right now. But I think that everyone learned that you just have to keep fighting and continuing to search for those wins.”
Last season it seemed like Penn State players were fighting against the world. At least from their perspective in their corner of Happy Valley, that was a powerful motivator before even lining up against an opponent on a football field. Just months before, their worlds had been turned upside down as the normal grind of a college football season turned into an everyday struggle to focus on that aspect. In November, a vile and tragic series of revelations and events continued to rock Penn State and its football team.
After Joe Paterno was fired, it got worse for Penn State players before it got better. The NCAA came down hard on the program. A handful of players left and suddenly, the most important thing Penn State players would play for on Saturdays would be their names. An 8-4 season helped the Nittany Lions cope as Beaver Stadium and other gridirons became their sanctuaries.
Now 3-2 and coming off one of the hardest losses in recent memory — Indiana had never beaten Penn State in 16 tries before Saturday — the Nittany Lions insist they still have a lot to play for.
“I feel like Penn State’s going to have that for a while with what’s all gone on,” Jones said. “But at the same time we just have to go out there and join together and go out there and play as a team and get team wins.”
They won’t get a chance to prove themselves in a bowl game, but Saturday’s showdown with Michigan will do for now. It will have to. And the Nittany Lions and their coaches will have to re-evaluate and rediscover themselves after losing their way in Bloomington.
“We’re a team that’s going to learn from our mistakes,” Dieffenbach said. “A loss is a loss and you’ve got to put it behind you and be ready to go for next week.”
Penn State got a key contributor back as Mike Hull was able to play the majority of the game. Hull, who had been out with an unspecified knee injury, started the game alongside fellow linebackers Carson and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong.
Along with Carson, Hull led the team with 10 tackles and looked much better doing it than the last time he played. In a 34-31 loss against Central Florida in Week 3, Hull tried to make a go of it but was often out of position and found himself being blocked out of plays. That game was a test run after he had sat out against Eastern Michigan the week before, Hull said.
Hull sat out against Kent State and with a bye week sandwiched between that game and Saturday’s game, Hull had plenty of time to rest up and rehab his knee. He said it was like a “night and day” difference between how he felt against UCF and Indiana.
“It tore me up not playing,” Hull said. “But it was a lot better (against Indiana). It’s been two rehab sessions a day. Probably rehabbing for two hours at a time. It was tough just because I love being out there with my teammates and all the guys but I knew I had to get it where I could play on it.”
Hull estimated he’s between 90 and 95 percent healthy and will practice fully as Penn State prepares for Michigan this week.
For the second time this season Penn State’s defense struggled mightily against a talented passing attack.
Penn State gave up 336 passing yards and two touchdown to the Hoosiers offense led by sophomore Nate Sudfeld three weeks after surrendering 288 yards and three passing touchdowns to the UCF offense.
The Hoosiers did most of their damage on the fly. They ran 80 plays and called 40 passes, often taking just 11 to 15 seconds between plays to get back to the line and run another. While the pace was tough for Penn State’s defense to keep up with, the Hoosiers’ schemes couldn’t be slowed.
Specifically, their short passing attack highlighted by screens to running backs Tevin Coleman and receivers Kofi Hughes and Cody Latimer were unstoppable.
Indiana ran seven screen passes that earned its offense five first downs and 81 yards.
“It was whether we stopped it or not and today we didn’t stop the screen,” Lucas said. “We knew what type of team they were and they just executed.”
Special teams couldn’t get it done, either.
The Nittany Lions were plagued by two poor snaps, a botched hold, a blocked kick and a devastating fumble on a late kick return that all but guaranteed their fate. Sam Ficken had a chip-shot field goal chance wiped out when Ty Howle fired a low snap to Alex Butterworth, who couldn’t keep the ball from sliding under his grasp for a 31-yard loss that resulted in a turnover on downs.
A second low-snap, faulty-hold combination prevented Ficken from hitting a 42-yarder late in the second quarter but Indiana had called timeout giving him another chance. The second try was blocked by Ralphael Green to keep Indiana in the lead, 10-7.
After Indiana took a 35-17 lead early in the fourth quarter, Eugene Lewis was stripped of the ball on the ensuing kickoff return by Steven Funderburk. Latimer recovered it to set up another Indiana touchdown — a 9-yard run from Tre Roberson — on the next play.
Day to Remember
Penn State’s Allen Robinson made plays all over the field. He finished with a career-high 12 catches for 173 yards and two touchdowns. Robinson also pulled into a tie for fifth place on Penn State’s career receiving touchdown list with O.J. McDuffie. Both have 16.
Latimer was a vital weapon for Indiana. He hauled in nine catches for 140 yards and although he didn’t score, his fumble recovery provided the back-breaking moment still with over 10:30 to play.
Day to Forget
Penn State’s coaches will watch the tape but as O’Brien said, a lot of the blame falls on the shoulders of the coaching staff.
“We coached very average today,” O’Brien said.
The Nittany Lions went just 1-for-5 on fourth down conversions and blew a chance to put points on the board after a solid opening drive when O’Brien opted to try to convert fourth-and-5 from Indiana’s 26-yard line. A simple defensive line stunt foiled the play, however.
A decision to go for fourth-and-2 from his team’s own 33-yard line early in the fourth quarter was also a questionable gamble by O’Brien. It failed and Penn State ended up paying for it. Still with all of his timeouts with more than 13 minutes to play and only trailing by 11, O’Brien called a passing play from the shotgun. Indiana’s Bobby Richardson knocked the pass down at the line and the Hoosiers took a 35-17 lead two plays later when Sudfeld, with a short field, threw a 36-yard touchdown pass to Kofi Hughes.
“His touchdowns were huge momentum changes,” Latimer on dual-threat quarterback Roberson’s two touchdown runs subbing in for Sudfeld.
Follow Travis Johnson on Twitter @bytravisjohnson.