Clifford sends No. 9 Penn State past No. 24 Indiana 34-27

Penn State running back Journey Brown (4) celebrates in front of Indiana defensive back Juwan Burgess (5) after scoring on a 35-yard touchdown in the third quarter of an NCAA college football game in State College, Pa., on Saturday, Nov.16, 2019. Penn State defeated 34-27.

STATE COLLEGE - Indiana had just scored, early in the fourth quarter here Saturday, to pull within three points of a potential upset that may not have been that big an upset.

Penn State took over at its own 25 yard-line, and something happened that was so out of character for this day and this season and this era of Penn State’s program that it felt spliced in from a different movie.

The Nittany Lions smacked an opponent backward. They controlled the chains and the clock and squeezed the life out of the Hoosiers and locked up a season-saving win.

Penn State went 75 yards in 18 plays, 16 of them runs. The drive lasted 9:01, ended in a Sean Clifford touchdown run on fourth-and-goal from the 1, and ended the suspense of an eventual 34-27 win before 106,323 at Beaver Stadium.

“We always talk about ending the game on our terms,’’ Clifford said afterward. “We said it again at the beginning of that drive.’’

“I haven’t been involved in too many of those,’’ said coach James Franklin.

The march included just one pass completion, to tight end Pat Freiermuth, who turned a short throw into a 15-yard gain, only his second of the day.

With top wide receiver K. J. Hamler out since the first half with an apparent injury, freshman running back Noah Cain still out with an injury suffered three weeks ago at Michigan State, Freiermuth being treated like Odell Beckham, Jr. by the Hoosiers and a defense that has suddenly fallen and can’t get up, Penn State had to win up front and pound away.

They did it. RBs Journey Brown (21 carries, 100 yards) and Devyn Ford hauled the mail, as did Clifford and, in a new wrinkle, backup QB Will Levis, with Clifford lined up as a wideout, who converted a critical fourth down.

They did it while running the play (and thus game) clock down almost as far as possible on play after play, such a departure that some fans didn’t seem to get it and booed what they perceived to be, …. what, indecision? Pre-snap confusion?

Clifford converted a third-and-one with a run from the Indiana 12 to the 6. Then it was Brown for one yard. Brown again for another, and Clifford for three to the 1.

Franklin called time and faced a decision that wasn’t that hard. A TD meant a 10-point lead inside the two-minute mark. If the Hoosiers held, they’d still have to go 99 yards.

“It was the right decision,’’ Franklin said, then asking the media, “Why?”

“Because it worked.’’

So Penn State improves to 9-1, 6-1 in the Big Ten. It still (probably) controls its own destiny for a berth in the national championship playoff.

That’s the good news.

On the other side of the ledger, Penn State talked all week about not letting Minnesota, which beat the Lions last week, beat them again, in a figurative sense, this week.

And then it played, most of the way, as if it had not recovered at all. Indiana, a pretty good club, now 7-3 and leading the Big Ten in passing, had more yards, more first downs, more plays and more yards per play.

QB Peyton Ramsey, who wasn’t the starter until Michael Penix was injured three weeks ago, completed 31 of 41 passes for 371 yards, nine yards per attempt.

Penn State’s defense has remained solid against the run, and got another superb game Saturday from linebacker Micah Parsons.

But in defending the pass - rushing the passer, covering receivers, tackling them, all of it - the D is in utter collapse.

Indiana muffed a punt very early, Penn State recovering. The Hoosiers were stuffed on a fake punt try early in the second half which IU coach Tom Allen said later wasn’t supposed to be a fake.

“A true freshman long snapper made a mistake,’’ Allen explained.

Without those whoppers, the Lions would have been in serious trouble Saturday.

It’s hard to imagine how they’ll avoid even more serious trouble this Saturday at fearsome Ohio State.

But there were those 18 plays, those 75 yards, those nine minutes, which allowed the Lions to keep telling themselves that everything is still on the table.