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Penn State Shaky In 24-17 Overtime Win Against Illinois

Despite accumulating 490 yards of offense, including an outstanding 250 on the ground, the Nittany Lions only scored 24 points in an overtime win against the Illinois Fighting Illini on Saturday.

Penn State played a strong first half, going ahead 14-0 on a Bill Belton five-yard touchdown run and a Christian Hacknberg nine-yard touchdown run, but things began heading downhill for the Nittany Lions late in the second quarter. The Illinois offense came to life on a drive at the end of the first half and though it was held to a field goal, the team’s second quarter momentum continued into the second half.

It seemed at halftime that the Nittany Lions had a chance to turn this game into a blowout, but costly errors in the second half prevented them from doing that. The offense stalled on a number of second-half drives, making it into Illinois territory before a penalty would set up a long third down. On the other side of the ball, the Penn State defense turned into swiss cheese, allowing Illinois to drive down the field with ease.

Josh Ferguson ran for a touchdown late in the third quarter. He caught another from Nathan Scheelhaase — who passed the ball with ease int he second half — in the middle of the fourth quarter to give Illinois a 17-14 lead. A Bill Belton goal line fumble soon after looked like it could have meant the end for Penn State. Instead, the defense came up with a big stop and Sam Ficken kicked a field goal to force overtime.

Facing a 3rd-and-11 in the extra session, after a holding penalty brought back a Bill Belton touchdown, Christian Hackenberg stood strong in the pocket, saw Kyle Carter open for a split second in the end zone, and fired a bullet into a small window for the go-ahead touchdown.

After the extra point, Illinois took the field on offense. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase went for the end zone on the first play to try and force a second overtime, but Adrian Amos tipped the pass and Ryan Keiser intercepted it to seal the win.

When asked after the game if he felt fortunate to come out with the win despite a number of seemingly costly mistakes, Bill O’Brien scoffed at the idea.

“I never feel fortunate to win,” he said. “We were a resilient team. I told the kids that I’m happy for them, but I do believe we can be a better football team. We cherish every single win here at Penn State. I don’t feel fortunate to have won this game. Fortunate is when you win the lottery. When you win $50 million you’re fortunate.”

But maybe he should reconsider. In a game in which the Nittany Lions defense looked like a doormat for much of the second half, Penn State was fortunate to walk away victorious. In a game that was marred by a number of missed opportunities on offensive drives because of penalties, poor play calls, and mistakes, Penn State was fortunate to make it to overtime, let alone to win the game.

“We had some crucial penalties that stopped some drives for us,” Allen Robinson said. “There were some third-and-shorts that we have to get. We know the things that we have to capitalize on and we know what mistakes we made. We feel like we left a lot of points out there on offense.”

A win is a win, but the team needs to make a lot of improvements going forward, according to a few players.

“I’d say I’m feeling a combination of joy because we won and also in the back of our heading knowing that we can perform better,” John Urschel said. “There are some things we can do better next Saturday and the Saturday after that. We have to make the most of our opportunities.”

“If we have a chance to get some points, we have to get the points,” he continued. “One example of that is a little 15-yard tripping penalty on myself. I’d say that it was a tough-fought game. We made some mistakes and they made some mistakes.”

But the players also stressed how resilient they are after the game. O’Brien uses that word to describe his team on a weekly basis, and it sees that the players are getting a little too comfortable playing bad football as long as they come away with the win. That isn’t a good thing.

“If the defense has to come up big for us, they will. If the kicker has to come out big for us, they will,” Bill Belton said. “We had some costly penalties and we hurt ourselves today with those. We have to be more disciplined and crack down on things like that in practice. It’s huge to overcome that. We preach the resilient thing.”

“We’ve been resilient all year. Even going back to Central Florida, we didn’t win but we fought until the end,” Hackenberg said. “That’s one of our strengths as a team. But it was frustrating understanding that we had a good chance to put points on the board a lot this game and didn’t do it. That will be our focus this week is just to finish in those types of situations.”

There’s no doubt that this team has potential. O’Brien said after the game that he thinks that Penn State is capable of being a good football team. But it’s a matter of playing disciplined football and being consistent. With Minnesota up next on the schedule, the Nittany Lions have a lot of work ahead of them this week.

Game notes:

  • Bill Belton set personal records for carries and yards today, running the ball 36 times for 201 yards — good for a 5.6 yards per carry average. He scored a touchdown from five yards out in the first quarter. Belton appears to have established himself as Penn State’s primary running back going forward.
  • Christian Hackenberg completed 20 of 32 passes for 240 yards and one touchdown. He was off on a number of passes, overthrowing receivers a few times. He was also nearly picked off at one point in the second half by a defensive end who dropped pack in coverage and undercut a route. Hackenberg had a generally good game, although it wasn’t his best. He ran for a touchdown from nine yards out in the second quarter, seeing a lane and diving into the end zone. O’Brien said that the coaches have been working with him on recognizing running lanes because of his athleticism.
  • Allen Robinson pulled in 11 of Hackenberg’s 20 completions for 165 yards, climbing  from eighth to fourth on the Penn State career receiving yards list in the process. No other receiver caught more than two passes for the Nittany Lions.
  • Jordan Lucas came up with a clutch interception on the first drive of the game, stopping Illinois after they drove into the red zone. Lucas has improved greatly over the course of the season. He is still having some trouble with coverage on occasion, but has come a far way from the August game against Syracuse.
  • Penn State totaled 490 yards of offense, which you can think of as covering the entire field just short of five times, but scored just 24 points. The culprit was penalties that ended drives short and forced punts as well as missed third-down attempts after traveling into Illinois territory a number of times.
  • Donovan Smith was injured at one point in the second half but returned to the game and seemed to be fine.

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About the Author

Zach Berger

Zach Berger is a reporter and Onward State's Managing Editor Emeritus. You can find him at the Phyrst more nights than not. If he had to pick a last meal, Zach would go for a medium-rare New York strip steak with a side of garlic mashed potatoes and a cold BrewDog Punk IPA. You can reach him via e-mail at [email protected] or on Twitter at @theZachBerger.

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