Before Penn State was knocked flat on its back, disaster gave way to determination.
That’s when defensive back Amani Oruwariye leaped in the air and came down with an interception in the end zone for the Lions, ending an overtime thriller for Penn State.
Or was it more of a chiller?
Nobody in Penn State’s program felt especially proud of Saturday’s 45-38 win over Appalachian State, nor should they.
Only a couple of face-saving plays rescued Penn State from the unthinkable.
So powerful Penn State survived a season-opening upset bid by Appalachian State, which is becoming known for regularly throwing major scares into major college football programs around the country.
But it put Penn State right there now, among a group of FBS teams that had their nervous systems torn apart by the Mountaineers.
“I started the game at 46 years old,” Lions coach James Franklin said. “I ended it at 51.”
Franklin blamed the opposing scheme.
Oruwariye blamed it on the team Penn State was facing.
And leading receiver Juwan Johnson believes things aren’t as bad for Penn State as it may seem.
“We look at the stats,” Johnson said. “It’s one in the win column, zero in the loss column. That’s all that pretty much matters. That’s the way we look at it.”
It’s the way they have to since the Lions spent most of Saturday trying to turn their motto from unrivaled to unraveled.
“We’ve got a lot of things we’ve got to get cleaned up,” Franklin said. “We’ll critique the heck of of this tomorrow.”
Nobody has to go over much game film to find a plethora of Penn State flaws.
The Lions receivers couldn’t get open, the running game was plodding and the offensive line didn’t do much to open many lanes for running backs and didn’t do enough to give quarterback Trace McSorley much time to work some magic.
“It wasn’t perfect,” Lions center Michael Menet said.
Franklin chalked that up to the 3-4 defense Appalachian State brought to Beaver Stadium, which wound up giving the Lions fits.
“I thought they had a good plan today,” Franklin said of the Mountaineers.
On special teams, the Lions didn’t seem to have much of a plan for anything.
They gave up a 100-yard kickoff return that Mountaineers speedster Darrynton Evans took back for an early touchdown and were caught when Appalachian State recovered an onside kick that turning into a tying touchdown drive in the fourth quarter.
“I did not think we played well on special teams,” Franklin said.
The Lions didn’t play well on defense, either.
They couldn’t generate much pressure on quarterback Zac Thomas and couldn’t cover his receivers during a 270-yard passing day.
Most troubling, when the defense needed some stops to close victory in the fourth quarter, the Lions surrendered 21 points — including the tying and go-ahead touchdowns in a late-game span of just over four minutes.
“We’ve definitely got a lot of film to watch, to clean up,” Oruwariye said.
Look, it’s not like the Lions got their clocks cleaned.
By the end, they did accumulate 434 yards of offense and scored six touchdowns while putting up 38 points in regulation. They got a 52-yard kickoff return and then a 15-yard catch to the 1-yard line from KJ Hamler to produce a two-minute touchdown that forced overtime.
They got 25 yards and the winning touchdown on four straight carries by Miles Sanders in overtime and Oruwariye’s game-ending pick in the end zone to thwart Appalachian State’s upset bid.
But the struggles for Penn State overwhelmed any sense of excitement over a shaky victory that should drop the Lions out of the top 10 in national rankings this week. Even if they did survive a scary Appalachian State program that stunned Michigan with a 34-32 victory in 2007, took Tennessee to overtime in 2016 and went to the wire in a one-point loss to Georgia Tech last season.
“They seem to do it against everybody,” Franklin said.
It is also the same Appalachian State program Michigan trounced 52-14 in their rematch game in 2014, was battered by Clemson, 41-10 in 2015 and got gashed by Georgia 31-10 last year. And those are the programs Penn State is trying to catch on a national level.
“We’re going to look back at the end of the year, this is going to be a critical win for us,” Franklin said.
At the beginning of the season, it looks more like a major concern.
Reach Paul Sokoloski at 570-991-6392 or on Twitter @TLPaulSokoloski