Miles Dieffenbach waited nearly eight months to celebrate like this.
So when Bill Belton hurried to the sideline after an eight-yard touchdown run all but finished off the Temple Owls in Penn State’s 30-13 win at Beaver Stadium on Saturday, Dieffenbach was a bit incredulous. He chased Belton toward the sideline and ended up tripping over a teammate instead.
“I saw he scored so I started sprinting after the touchdown and I look and he’s gone,” Dieffenbach said. “I went over and said, ‘Bill, what’s going on brother?’ I’m trying to celebrate in the end zone and he ran away from me.”
But Dieffenbach and his teammates had plenty to celebrate after the Nittany Lions (6-4, 2-4 Big Ten) ran away from the Owls (5-5, 3-3 American Athletic Conference). First and foremost, the Nittany Lions became bowl-eligible for the first time since 2011 with the win. They also celebrated the return of two big cogs up front.
Dieffenbach, who played a heavy volume of snaps for the first time after returning from a knee injury suffered in March, had a big hand in the win. So did teammate Donovan Smith — who returned after a two-game absence — and the rest of an offensive line that had struggled to clear the way on the ground this season.
Penn State churned out 254 rushing yards on 47 carries and Dieffenbach and Smith sealed off the left side of the Temple defense for Akeel Lynch to sprint around the edge for a 38-yard go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter. Lynch’s run broke a 6-6 tie and gave Penn State a lead it would never relinquish. Fifty-four seconds later, Belton burst through blocks from Dieffenbach and Smith to put the game out of the Owls’ reach.
“I think there’s no doubt having the physical presence and having two of our more experienced players on our offense, especially on our offensive line, was big for us,” Penn State coach James Franklin said.
So was Penn State’s defense. Again.
The Nittany Lions forced five turnovers and the offense turned those into 17 points. Senior safeties Adrian Amos and Jesse Della Valle and true freshman Christian Campbell all picked off passes while true freshman cornerback Grant Haley returned a P.J. Walker interception 30 yards for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
Defensive tackle Austin Johnson hopped on a loose ball after Walker fumbled a snap in the fourth quarter. Sam Ficken connected from 21 yards out on his third field goal of the game six plays later to cap Penn State’s scoring. Ficken also hit two first-half kicks including one from 29 yards to start the scoring and a career long 50-yarder as time expired at halftime.
But it was Penn State’s rejuvenated ground game that set the tone and carried play throughout the game. Lynch finished with 130 yards on 18 carries and became the second Nittany Lion rusher in as many weeks to go over 100 yards. Belton was close behind with 92 yards on 19 carries. Lynch averaged 7.2 yards per carry while Belton averaged 4.8.
Dieffenbach, who played just 10 snaps against Indiana, played 44 on Saturday. He was effective on almost every one. So was Smith, who played the entire game after missing games against Maryland and Indiana with an unspecified ailment. Angelo Mangiro subbed in at all three interior positions while Derek Dowrey, Brian Gaia and Brendan Mahon all played inside. Wendy Laurent spent much of the game at center.
All of them were fired up throughout, Lynch said.
“Once you see your o-line into it, you’re like, ‘Man, we’re going to kill these guys,’” Lynch said. “Because once they see us break big runs, they hold their blocks a little bit longer and we run a little bit harder and that’s how it keeps going.”
Lynch and Belton chipped away with moderate gains then smoked Temple’s usually-sturdy defense for big gains.
Belton recovered after a first-quarter fumble and ripped off a 37-yard run in the third quarter. He came out of the game for a breather and Lynch galloped 38 yards on the next play to put Penn State up for good.
Amos intercepted a Walker pass and returned it deep into Temple territory to set up Belton’s touchdown run.
The Owls, who got two field goals from Austin Jones to that point, weren’t ready to surrender. Walker hit top wideout Jalen Fitzpatrick on a 75-yard touchdown pass on the next play. The rare big-play against Penn State’s defense happened after Fitzpatrick ran alongside Jordan Lucas in single coverage. Freshman safety Marcus Allen moved up toward the line of scrimmage anticipating a first-down run and was not in position to help Lucas against the speedy Fitzpatrick over the top.
It didn’t matter.
Haley intercepted Walker early in the fourth quarter and broke a handful of tackles to get into the end zone. The Nittany Lions finished with 366 yards of total offense to Temple’s 248. The fact that most of those yards came on the ground was not lost on Penn State’s players.
“That was huge,” quarterback Christian Hackenberg said. “That was the focus this week for us, just trying to make sure we got ourselves in the best looks that we could to run the football or throw the football and I think for the most part we did that.”