Within the confines of Memorial Stadium’s visiting team media room, James Franklin took one sip of purple Gatorade and raised his plastic bottle to the air, proclaiming with a grin it was 90 percent full.
He described his team’s win — Penn State beat Indiana 13-7 on Saturday in front of just 42,683 fans — as the “prettiest win I’ve ever seen in my 20 years.”
Sure, Franklin’s been on the sidelines for much prettier victories than this — a game that featured 20 total punts, 17 combined penalties and four turnovers by the offenses — but they’ve been hard to come by for the Nittany Lions (5-4, 2-4 Big Ten). It had been 49 days since Penn State felt the emotions of victory.
That’s what made this one sweet enough for the Nittany Lions.
“I would love to win 173-0 or if we could keep people to negative points, I would love to do that every single week but right now where we’re at as a program, we’re just going to find ways to get Ws,” Franklin said. “Hopefully those things will grow over time. I’m very confident that they will but the most important thing where we’re at right now is to find a way to get a W, get back on that plane and keep building, stay positive and be optimistic.”
Sam Ficken made two field goals, including a 27-yarder in the third quarter that held up as the game-winner, and Bill Belton ripped off the longest scoring run, a 92-yarder, in program history to help pull the Nittany Lions (5-4, 2-4 Big Ten) out of a four-game tailspin. Ficken added a 28-yarder late to give Penn State some insurance.
The Nittany Lions will take all they can get on offense right now.
A passing game that has gone east and west more than north struggled as Hackenberg completed just 12 of 29 passes, was picked off twice and sacked five more times. Meanwhile, six of Hackenberg’s passes were dropped by their intended targets. The running game wasn’t much better. Although Belton’s run pumped up the team’s average on the ground, Penn State averaged just under two yards per carry on the team’s 36 other tries.
“We got it done,” Hackenberg said. “We found a way. I think I said last week, every game from here on out is going to be a fight and that’s sort of how we approach it. We found a way to claw one out today and that’s good for us going down with this stretch here.”
Ficken had his first field goal try blocked after a disastrous red-zone trip saw offensive coordinator John Donovan call three running plays inside the Indiana three-yard line and lose five yards. Five of Penn State’s 17 possessions ended in three-and-outs while two more ended in interceptions. One of those turned into the only points the Hoosiers scored thanks to a dominant effort from Penn State’s defense.
Indiana took a 7-0 lead when safety Mark Murphy returned a Hackenberg interception 47 yards in the second quarter. Murphy lined up deep but crept to the line of scrimmage and jumped a wide receiver screen pass, swatting it from the air before catching it and outrunning Hackenberg to the end zone.
But Belton brought Penn State right back.
The senior tailback darted through a wide open hole on Penn State’s very next play and dashed untouched to the end zone. Once Belton broke into the second level, he angled his run toward the sideline, avoiding the pursuit of Indiana defensive backs Flo Hardin and Murphy. It was the longest scoring run in Penn State history and the longest in Memorial Stadium history, too.
For Belton, the most important factor was that his big play served as an equalizer at a critical moment.
“The line did a great job on that play to open a lot of things up,” Belton said. “Once I got through there, there was no one in the middle of the field so I was able to take that big crease that they gave me and go the distance with it.”
Save for a long missed field goal, the Hoosiers wouldn’t come close to scoring for the rest of the game. The farthest Penn State’s defense was backed up by Indiana was to its own 33-yard line where Indiana kicker Griffin Oakes missed a 51-yard kick that would’ve tied the game in the third quarter. The Hoosiers crossed midfield just four times and only once in the second half.
Penn State opened the second half with a nine-play, 36-yard drive that nearly ended with a Hackenberg touchdown pass. The sophomore rolled to his right and fired back across the field where a wide-open Mike Gesicki waited in the end zone. But Hackenberg missed the big freshman tight end and Penn State settled for Ficken’s 27-yard kick to take a 10-7 lead.
Meanwhile, Penn State’s defense continued to dominate on an afternoon that saw the Nittany Lions hold Tevin Coleman, the nation’s top rusher, to just 71 yards on 20 carries.
With less than three minutes to play Nyeem Wartman dropped into coverage and intercepted a Zander Diamont pass over the middle. Wartman returned the interception 13 yards to set Penn State’s offense up well within Ficken’s kicking range. The Nittany Lions were able to kill 1:31 off the clock and Ficken lifted Penn State to a 13-7 led with his 28-yard kick.
When Indiana got the ball back, Diamont — who was also betrayed by a handful of dropped passes — had just 55 seconds to work with. Penn State’s defense shut him down.
“The defense has done a fantastic job,” Hackenberg said. “They’re one of the best in the country. Coach (Bob) Shoop does a fantastic job with them. Knowing that you have a chance to win every game, so we love what they bring to the table and they really help us out.”
Travis Johnson can be reached at 231-4629. Follow him on Twitter @bytravisjohnson.