STATE COLLEGE, PA. – They had to win this one. Absolutely, unequivocally had to win.
No conference opener should ever be described as must-win, but in terms of perception and creating belief, the Gophers could not afford to leave Happy Valley on a sour note.
And yet that’s precisely how they departed the field at Penn State’s Beaver Stadium on a gloomy Saturday evening.
The script never seems to change, does it?
The Gophers blew a 10-point halftime lead and then gagged on a three-point advantage with less than a minute remaining in regulation before stumbling in overtime 29-26.
Penn State’s slogan is “Unrivaled.” The Gophers’ slogan could be “Unraveled” after what transpired.
Their secondary imploded. Their senior quarterback threw an interception in the end zone with the score tied in the fourth quarter. And silly penalties that continue to plague them reflect poorly on coach Tracy Claeys.
One road loss shouldn’t ruin their season, but the Gophers blew a chance to signal that they are serious about contending in the Big Ten West Division.
They needed to make their fans believe that the program is ready to deliver more. They needed to provide hope.
Momentum is vital to Gophers football program right now. Attendance is down. Fans seem to be in wait-and-see mode.
This won’t help.
The Gophers did many things right in the first half, which ended with Claeys showing his aggressive nature in the final minute to set up a field goal that gave them a 13-3 lead.
Good teams step on the gas at that point against a wounded, vulnerable team. This Penn State team is not Joe Paterno’s Nittany Lions. Not even close.
Instead, the Gophers came unglued. They didn’t make winning plays.
The entire second half became theater of the absurd. It felt like the Gophers won and lost three different times.
The temptation will be to point to Jaylen Waters’ unnecessary hit on kicker Joey Julius on a kickoff as the turning point. That incident enraged the Penn State sideline and created tension, but the Gophers already had lost their grip by then.
The Nittany Lions looked flustered on offense right after halftime. Their fans were restless. One play changed everything.
On third-and-10, Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley was forced to step up in the pocket, releasing the ball a split second before he crossed the line of scrimmage.
Irvin Charles caught the pass around the Gophers 40. Safety Adekunle Ayinde put his arms around Charles in a weak attempt to strip the ball.
Charles wiggled free and raced into the end zone for an 80-yard touchdown.
Beaver Stadium woke up and the game was on.
The teams traded scores until the score was tied 20-20. The Gophers were in position to take the lead again, but Mitch Leidner reverted to Bad Mitch by throwing an interception in the end zone with 7:45 left.
Leidner had Brian Smith open and needed to throw his pass toward the back of the end zone so that only Smith could catch it. Instead, Leidner underthrew it, allowing cornerback Jordan Smith to grab it.
“Just kind of babied it a little bit,” Leidner said.
That was not the time or place to baby it. Not from a senior quarterback who has played in lots of big games in his career.
The Gophers survived that mistake and took the lead after a weird sequence on a Rodney Smith run.
Penn State hit Smith at the line, but he kept spinning and twisting and moving backward as he resisted being tackled. Smith lost 7 yards on the run, back to the 41, setting up what would’ve been third-and-21.
Penalty flag. A Penn State player grabbed Smith’s facemask, moving the Gophers to the 19.
The Gophers turned that gift into a 23-20 lead on Emmit Carpenter’s 37-yard field goal with 54 seconds left.
The Gophers needed one stop, one play from their defense to ice the win. Didn’t happen.
They kept unraveling. The defense buckled. First at the end of regulation and then again in overtime.
“We had our opportunities to win,” Claeys said.
Certainly did. That should sting, especially with the reeling Iowa Hawkeyes coming to town next week.
Saturday was a big opportunity for the Gophers, a chance for them to set a positive tone and give people reason to believe.
They flushed it away.