Penn State comes out on top in overtime win against Illinois
STATE COLLEGE -- Crisp, textbook, pretty, would not be words to describe Penn State's 24-17 overtime victory against Illinois on Saturday afternoon. Some may even call the Nittany Lions lucky to come away with a win.
Just don't tell that to Bill O'Brien.
"I don't feel fortunate," the head coach said after the game. "Fortunate is when you win the lottery, you know what I mean? I won $50 million. I'm fortunate to win the lottery. To me, we went out there, did what we had to do to win a football game, and give the kids here at Penn State a lot of credit."
Penn State (5-3, 2-2 Big Ten) was mere minutes away from having the Fighting Illini leave Beaver Stadium with their first Big Ten win since October 2011, but got to leave victorious thanks to a Sam Ficken field goal, Kyle Carter touchdown and a game-ending interception by Ryan Keiser. In the second late comeback and overtime win in as many home games, true freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg got the Nittany Lions in field goal range with about a minute left and Ficken's 35-yard field goal forced extra football.
The Lions' offense stalled for nearly the entire second half, but got the ball first, and got it to the end zone in overtime. It looked like Bill Belton -- who finished with 201 yards on 36 carries -- had scored on a third down play from the 7-yard line, but it was called back for holding. After the penalty (which was one of 11 whistled against the Lions), tight end Kyle Carter said the Lions dialed up what he called O'Brien's "favorite play." Carter ran a post route, and Hackenberg found him in the middle of the end zone.
"Watching that play on film from the [New England] Patriots it looked pretty similar to the type of windows that [Tom] Brady was," said Hackenberg, who finished with 240 yards on 20-of-32 passing. "So I'm not saying that’s anything I -- it looked pretty good, so I felt confident. And I thought 'What the heck?' And Kyle had a great catch."
Illinois needed an answer, and went for it on the first play of the team's possession. However, Nathan Scheelhaase's pass to the end zone was tipped by Adrian Amos and intercepted by Keiser, a safety and former walk-on.
Keiser said after the pass was tipped, it was like the ball was in slow-motion. And while Keiser's interception may have surprised a few fans, Amos said he's seen Keiser make plays on the "tip drill" countless times at practice.
"He's always around the ball," Amos said. "Keiser is real religious, so I'll be like 'It's heaven-sent.' God always puts you in the right place. It's a little joke. He's just always around the ball."
Coming off a game in which the defense allowed record numbers to Ohio State, Penn State gave up 411 yards -- 321 came from Scheelhaase's arm -- but as O'Brien was glad to point out, the unit was successful in the category that counts the most: points. The Illini managed just three points in the first two quarters, but scored on two of their three drives to start the second half to take the lead. After the go-ahead score, Penn State forced a three-and-out, and Keiser came up with the walk-off pick in overtime.
"There were a lot of things that we could have prevented, said cornerback Jordan Lucas, who had an interception and seven tackles."I guess you could say it was a little sloppy on our side of the ball, defensively."
Offensively, Belton became the first Penn State running back to hit the 200-yard mark since Larry Johnson did so in 2002, as he and wideout Allen Robinson combined for 388 of the team's 490 yards (79.2 percent). Robinson had his sixth 100-yard game of the season and made 11 grabs for 165 yards.
His best catch of the afternoon came in the fourth quarter when he out-lept a defender to make an impressive snag at the 5-yardline. This gave Penn State a great chance to tie the game or take the lead, but Belton fumbled the ball three plays later.
It was a game riddled with errors for both sides (Illinois committed nine penalties, including a handful of very untimely flags), and O'Brien said he believes Penn State has a chance to be a good football team if it can cut down on mistakes.
Ugly or not, however, for the second time in four weeks -- and for the third straight Big Ten home game -- the Lions could celebrate an overtime win.
"It was bittersweet," Carter said. "We knew we should have won this game, but really, we should have done a lot better this game. We had a lot of mistakes. But in the end, when we have to score, and we score like that, everyone is in a great mood. Nobody can really be down about it."