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Analysis

What if the call at Indiana had been different?

Indiana QB Michael Penix Jr. reaches the ball to the goal line for a game-winning 2-point conversion in OT.

Nothing can change it. There’s no revisionist history. Penn State lost to Indiana. The refs called it a good 2-point conversion in overtime, giving the Hoosiers a 36-35 win. And that’s that.

Except for this: Many people, including me, do not believe it was a good 2-point conversion. It looked like the ball hit out of bounds first, then hit the pylon, as Michael Penix Jr. reached for the goal line in the season opener on Oct. 24. Many PSU fans and media members — including Kirk Herbstreit — felt it was a bad call and that Penn State actually should have won the game.

My guess is most Nittany Lion players, after seeing the replay, also felt it was a bad call, although the system isn’t set up for them to be able to be completely honest about such a thing in public.

If that call had gone the other way, just how different might the entire season have been for the Lions? How much of a mental boost would it have given Penn State, instead of zapping away their spirit?

(As some readers have correctly pointed out, the 2-point call wouldn’t have even mattered had PSU not scored a touchdown — as Indiana let happen — inside of 2 minutes and just run out the clock.)

Let’s consider some things, and try to enjoy my rabbit hole theory without your head spinning too much:

**Penn State was going to lose to Ohio State the next week anyway.

The Buckeyes had a far better team, and PSU’s defense simply was not good enough to contain them in that game, no matter what happened against Indiana.

**Here’s where things get interesting, though. One loss to Ohio State would not have ended all of PSU’s goals this season. The Lions still may have felt like they could remain in the Big Ten East race with just a lone loss to Ohio State.

But with two losses already, because of the defeat at Indiana, this much was clear: Penn State had no shot at any ANY of its goals.

No College Football Playoff.

No Big Ten title.

Nothing.

Instead, this is probably what the Lions still had in the back of their minds:

**The mental toll of that had to be crushing for a bunch of young players who already had been through a bunch of adversity with COVID, the season getting canceled and then restarted. Micah Parsons had opted out, and the players certainly already had to know about Journey Brown’s health situation and what that could mean to their friend and respected teammate. The deck was stacking against them in a hurry.

**If the Lions would have beaten Indiana and lost to Ohio State, it’s hard for me to think they would have come out and laid such a giant egg against Maryland in week three. The Terps just were not very good, but a Penn State team that was already deflated because all of its goals were gone came out flat and disinterested and suffered the most embarrassing loss of James Franklin’s tenure.

**I believe, and there’s no way to know, that if Penn State had beaten Indiana, then it also would have beaten Maryland. That belief is based on the “still have some goals left” theory.

**Now we start making some even bigger leaps, but connect the dots here with me. If PSU had beaten Maryland, I think it would have gone out and beaten Nebraska, improving to 3-1. The Lions started slowly again in Lincoln before rallying and coming up short, 30-23.

**At that point in the year, Sean Clifford was a mess. He was a turnover machine, which began in the Indiana game. Clifford felt like he had to be too perfect and do too much, which hurt his play badly. But would things have deteriorated like they did for him if PSU had beaten Indiana and navigated its way to a 3-1 record?

Nope.

Again, I’ll stop one more time and say all of this is some extreme speculation. But Clifford was a broken QB early in the season, and maybe, just maybe, he might not have been had things turned out differently at Indiana.

**From here, things get a little easier to dissect. Iowa was better than Penn State. I think the Hawkeyes would have beaten the Lions no matter what, even if Clifford had started at QB instead of getting benched for Will Levis.

So that leaves the team at 3-2.

**Penn State won its final four games, so that could have been 7-2 right there. Now, you can make a case that the reason the team won its final four games is because it learned from all that adversity from the 0-5 start and channeled it into finishing strong.

I’ll just contend the final four opponents were all really bad and PSU would have beaten them no matter what.

So, there ya go. Maybe a lot of this is wishful thinking, or even just crazy talk.

It’s like one of those action movies, where the only way the plot reaches its intended conclusion is if 25 random and unlikely things all happen, allowing George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon to pull off the casino heist just the way they planned it.

I’ll always be convinced the 2-point try at Indiana was not successful. So it’s hard not to wonder “what if” that had been the case with this particular PSU team in this crazy year.

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Written By

Cory Giger is a 15-year veteran of the Penn State beat and a journalist with 28 years of experience. He has won more than 100 state and national journalism awards during his career, plus he's a voter for the Heisman Trophy in football and Wooden Award in basketball.

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