Lions rally to win four-overtime thriller
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - Penn State coach Bill O'Brien had a decision to make on fourth down, either go for a short field goal and send the Nittany Lions' game against Michigan into a fifth overtime, or try to make a first down and risk the wrath of more than 100,000 white-clad fans.
He chose to go for it.
"Of course, I'm going to get crucified," O'Brien said of his worst possible scenario. "That's part of the job."
Bill Belton slashed for the first down to keep the drive alive, and scored four plays later on a 2-yard sweep to the left that gave the Lions a 43-40 victory over the 18th-ranked Wolverines in the longest game in Penn State history, one that took four overtimes and 4 hours, 11 minutes to complete.
The "whiteout" crowd of 107,884 fans at Beaver Stadium encountered a variety of emotions during the long afternoon that turned into night - desperation when the Lions (4-2 overall, 1-1 Big Ten) needed to go 80 yards in 50 seconds with no timeouts left in an unlikely bid to forge a tie at the end of regulation, and sheer elation when they did just that on Christian Hackenberg's 1-yard run to make it 34-34.
It turned into a defensive struggle in overtime. Each team had one field goal to show for the first three overtimes, and Brendan Gibbons led off the fourth extra period with a 40-yard field goal to give the Wolverines (5-1, 1-1) a 40-37 lead.
The Nittany Lions, who had not made a first down in overtime to that point, ran three plays and were left with fourth down and one from the Michigan 16. A sure field goal would tie it, but O'Brien wasn't thinking tie.
"The thing is, I thought at that point in time, it was the fourth overtime, and I felt it was time for somebody to win the game," O'Brien said. "We could sit here and keep trading field goals back and forth. I think eventually it was time for somebody to win the game and I had the opportunity to do it. I felt like it was time to go for the win."
Belton, the former Winslow Township High star who went the rest of the way after Zach Zwinak's fumble on the initial play of the second half resulted in a defensive touchdown for the Wolverines, made the first down. Penn State extended the drive on a pass interference penalty in the end zone against Michigan, putting the ball on the 2, from where Belton sent everybody home.
"I had a bunch of adrenaline running through me," Penn State left tackle Donovan Smith said. "My guy came inside and I just walled it up. I was looking out there and I saw [Belton] hit it. I'm sitting on the ground thinking 'Oh my God,' and it was just ridiculous."
Penn State led by 21-10 at the half on three touchdown passes by Hackenberg, who went 23 of 44 for 305 yards. Two of the TDs followed Wolverines turnovers.
But the turnover pendulum swung in Michigan's favor. Defensive end Frank Clark's 24-yard return of Zwinak's fumble sparked a 17-point third quarter that put the visitors in front, and a 37-yard touchdown pass from Devin Gardner to Devin Funchess gave Michigan a 34-24 lead with 10 minutes, 28 seconds to play.
Sam Ficken's 43-yard field goal made it a one-score game, and Penn State had its last shot from its own 20 with 50 seconds to play. O'Brien said that's not something his team is unfamiliar with.
"We practice two-minute situations every single day," O'Brien said. "In fact, that one we had at the end of the game we practiced just the other day. We knew there were specific plays we wanted to run there, and we just needed the line to block really well and they did. We were able to come up with some big plays."
Hackenberg hit Robinson for 14 yards, Brandon Felder for 29, and then threw a jump ball that Robinson hauled in for 36 yards to the 1, from where Hackenberg went in on a quarterback sneak. That set the stage for more football - a lot more football - and the Lions delivered the win.