STATE COLLEGE - Penn State really isn't that much better than an Illinois team that has lost 18 consecutive Big Ten games, and while that's definitely cause for concern, Saturday's overtime escape did reinforce one positive.
The Nittany Lions, as depleted as they are by the NCAA sanctions, still have a handful of very good players who can keep them in games against league opponents not named Buckeyes.
Penn State survived what would have been a devastating loss against the woeful Illini by essentially relying on receiver Allen Robinson, running back Bill Belton and quarterback Christian Hackenberg. The defense bent but didn't break (see story on Page C-10), and Illinois made enough of the kind of mistakes one would expect bad teams to make.
Penn State’s Ryan Keiser (23), a Selinsgrove graduate, intercepts an Illinois pass at the goal line in overtime to preserve Penn State’s 24-17 win in State College on Saturday. At right are Illinois’ Spencer Harris (80) and Penn State’s Adrian Amos.
It was, despite coach Bill O'Brien's assertion, an ugly victory, but it was a victory nonetheless as the Lions prevailed, 24-17, in OT before 95,131 fans at Beaver Stadium.
"A win's a win," Robinson said. "At the end of the day we were able to get the win."
Belton ran for 201 yards on 36 carries, becoming the first PSU rusher to top 200 since Larry Johnson in 2002, and Robinson delivered yet another stellar performance with 11 catches for 165 yards. Those two combined for 366 of the Lions' 490 yards.
Neither, however, factored in the game's deciding play, which came down to Hackenberg showing off his poise and arm in the clutch.
Penn State (5-3, 2-2 Big Ten), which forced overtime with a 36-yard field goal by Sam Ficken with 41 seconds left, got the ball first in the extra period.
Belton put a fumble late in regulation behind him and ran for 11 yards on the first play of overtime, then 3 yards on the next play. Hackenberg hit tight end Adam Breneman for 6 yards, setting up third-and-1 from the 5.
The Lions appeared to take the lead as Belton scampered around the right side to the end zone, but a holding call on tight end Jesse James pushed them back 10 yards.
On third-and-11 from the 15, Hackenberg, who has struggled in the red zone all season, stepped up in the pocket and fired a bullet to tight end Kyle Carter in the middle of the end zone.
"He made a great throw. I thought it was a hell of a throw," coach Bill O'Brien said.
The play, called "pearl", had Carter as the first option, and Hackenberg made one of his best throws of the season.
"That was a perfect throw," Carter said. "It hit me right in the numbers. There was no way I could have dropped that."
Hackenberg, who finished 20 of 32 for 240 yards, said the ball "definitely felt good coming out of my hand." He threaded the needle in a small window as Carter had two defenders nearby in the end zone.
"Watching that play on film from the Patriots it looked pretty similar to the type of windows that [Tom] Brady [throws to]," Hackenberg said. "I'm not saying that's anything near where I am, but it looked pretty good, so I felt confident."
Illinois (3-5, 0-4), which piled up 411 yards of offense - 321 through the air - appeared to panic on its possession in overtime as it took a shot at the end zone on the first play. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who picked apart PSU's secondary all day, threw into double coverage and had his pass tipped.
Safety Ryan Keiser was in coverage, along with cornerback Adrian Amos, and the ball popped right up to Keiser for the game-ending interception.
"It's like slow motion," Keiser said. "The ball's right there, and you've just got to grab it and make a play."
Belton and Robinson made big plays all day, piling up big numbers and giving Penn State's offense a major threat on the ground and through the air. The Lions, though, found themselves with only 14 points until the closing seconds of regulation because drive after drive stalled.
Illinois, meanwhile, battled back from a 14-0 deficit with 17 unanswered points. The Illini took their first lead, 17-14, when Scheelhaase hit Josh Ferguson on a screen pass for a 7-yard TD with 5:30 remaining.
On Penn State's ensuing drive, Robinson came up with a stellar grab on a play similar to his sideline catch against Michigan earlier this season. The pass initially was ruled incomplete, but replay overturned the call as Robinson hauled it in for a 39-yard gain to the Illinois 5.
Penn State was in position to take the lead, but on third-and-goal from the 2, Belton fumbled trying to fight for extra yardage. Illinois' Tim Kynard recovered at the 2.
"That was my fault," Belton said. "I made a mistake. I shouldn't reach the ball out. I was being too greedy. That was a stupid mistake, and it almost cost the team."
It didn't cost the Lions, however, because their defense was able to hold Illinois to a quick three-and-out.
The Illini, who took over possession with 3:23 left, surprisingly tried a low-percentage pass on first down. When it went incomplete, it stopped the clock and gave PSU, which had no timeouts, some valuable time.
Illinois had to punt from its own 8, and the Lions got the ball back at their 49 with 1:44 left.
Hackenberg turned to, who else, but Belton and Robinson to quickly move PSU into field-goal position. Belton carried for 8 yards on the first play, Robinson caught a 16-yard pass and Belton went for 6 yards to the 19.
Two incompletions set up fourth-and-4 from the 19, and Ficken, who earlier had missed from 37 yards, booted a 36-yard field goal to tie the game at 17 with 41 seconds left.
"Before I say anything, I want to thank the defense and Sam Ficken," Belton said when asked about his big day. "They basically saved the game."