BLOOMINGTON – Indiana has finally done what a generation of Hoosier football players never could:
Beat Penn State.
That it took 17 tries over more than two decades was beside the point. That it wasn't flawless was just being picky. The Hoosiers (3-2) got an effective mix of offense and defense in Saturday's 44-24 Big Ten-opening victory. It was their first win in a conference opener since beating Iowa in 2000
A reason for a raucous celebration?
Not even close.
“We're best if we keep it simple and work day by day,” coach Kevin Wilson said. “If we go over what we need short term and not look at the big picture.
“That being said, we have to win games like this. Penn State was one of the standards you set your team to, so it was nice to come away with the win.”
Nice doesn't quite do it when you consider IU's long history of coming up short colliding against Penn State's championship tradition.
"We've been close so many times before," receiver Kofi Hughes said. "The whole game, (receivers coach) Kevin Johns was saying, 'When is this team, when is this program, really going to turn the corner and finish a game?' We did that tremendously. It was a big, big step for this team."
Big steps were everywhere on a rainy day at Memorial Stadium. Quarterback Nate Sudfeld overcame three sacks, including one on IU's opening possession, to throw for 321 yards and a touchdown. Receiver Cody Latimer surpassed 100 receiving yards for the third straight game, finishing with a career-high 140 yards on a career-high nine catches. Tailback Tevin Coleman rushed for 92 yards, including a 44-yard TD run. Hughes had four catches for 85 yards, including a Penn State-breaking fourth-quarter touchdown catch.
And then there was quarterback Tre Roberson, relegated to backup after opening the season as the starter. He scored the first three times he had the ball, all in the fourth quarter. One was on a two-point conversion, the other two were touchdowns.
“That says a lot for Tre,” Wilson said. “They were critical plays. He'd been standing around for 45 minutes of game time. Then it was like, it's your first play, and by the way, we need this play.”
Penn State (3-2) was within four points to start the fourth quarter before IU broke it open with three touchdowns in a four-minute span. Receiver Allen Robinson led with 12 catches for 173 yards and two touchdowns. In two games against the Hoosiers Robinson has 22 catches for 370 yards and five touchdowns. Quarterback Christian Hackenberg was 30-for-55 for 340 yards and a touchdown.
It wasn't enough.
“We didn't play well; we didn't coach well,” Nittany Lions coach Bill O'Brien said. “We have a long way to go, but we have a bunch of resilient kids.”
The Hoosiers showed their own resiliency by bouncing back from the Missouri loss that resurrected doubts about whether they could ever turn the program around. Now they travel to Michigan State for their first road game with do-it-again thoughts.
“So far we've won and lost, won and lost,” Sudfeld said. “We have to build on this momentum.”
There wasn't much early momentum. Both teams passed on first-quarter field goal attempts with fourth-down gambles. Both teams failed to make it.
The Hoosiers' defense stiffened and their offense found its rhythm. They drove 66 yards in 44 seconds behind Sudfeld's passing. His 5-yard TD pass to Isaiah Roundtree gave them a 7-0 lead near the end of the first quarter.
That drive was set up when Penn State botched field goal snap that resulted in a 31-yard loss.
The Nittany Lions tied the score in the second quarter on a 46-yard TD pass from Hackenberg to Robinson to tie the score.
IU had a chance to go up 14-7 when Sudfeld hit Shane Wynn with a short touchdown pass, but it was disallowed because the Hoosiers had an ineligible receiver down field. Mitch Ewald kicked a 24-yard field goal, then added a 27-yarder to end the first half, giving IU a 13-7 lead.
Penn State went ahead 14-13 in the third quarter lead on Hackenberg's 26-yard TD pass to Robinson. The Hoosiers responded with Coleman's 44-yard touchdown run and a 21-14 score. The Nittany Lions' 30-yard field goal from Sam Ficken late in the third quarter closed the gap to four points.
IU broke it open with 21 points in the next four minutes, including two in 12 seconds. Two of the touchdowns, and one 2-point conversion, came from Roberson runs. Hughes added a 36-yard touchdown catch.
Hoosier defensive end Nick Mangieri forced a fumble that resulted in a Penn State safety and the final Indiana points.
“I'm happy for our guys,” Wilson said. “I'm happy for the people who stuck with us. We played well in a lot of phases. We're trying to build a program that is competitive in this league.”
And if the Hoosiers make a little more history along the way, all the better.