UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- The end was loud and exciting and improbable, just the way it should have been on a thriller of a night at Beaver Stadium. Running back Bill Belton received a handoff and it looked like he was facing a wall -- one of the many obstacles placed before Penn State throughout this marathon of a game -- but he pushed forward, sliced a bit to the left and found the end zone. The goal-line barrier that acted as a force field through the first three overtimes had been crossed.
And like that, Penn State won, 43-40, against No. 18 Michigan in four overtimes. A few minutes earlier, Penn State (4-2, 1-1) trailed, 34-24, and was barely able to breathe on offense. What could have been a second consecutive disappointing week turned into a pleasant ending for the 107,884 fans who watched and screamed, and for the players. They have come back before. But many agreed they hadn't experienced a game quite like this.
"Just to see how resilient my team was, Penn State-Michigan my senior year," offensive lineman John Urschel said. "This is probably going to be the greatest college football game that I've ever played in."
It could have easily ended on a dour note for Penn State. The game still would have been a thriller, but not the ideal ending for the Nittany Lions. Both teams had opportunities to win much earlier than the fourth overtime. Neither of them could -- until that final play.
From the 2-yard line, Penn State called for an off-tackle run play for Belton. He watched the play develop as he held the ball, saw that tackle Donovan Smith hooked his guy and decided to skip outside. He saw that he was going to go in untouched. He saw the end right before him.
"My eyes did light up," Belton said. "It was crazy. I always wanted to step up."
Minutes earlier, in the same overtime period, Belton converted a fourth-and-inches run play. Coach Bill O'Brien said he gives himself about four seconds to make those decisions, to decide to kick a field goal or go for it, and then which play to call.
Here's what he was thinking: This game had gone on long enough. He only had so many plays left to use. And he knew the winner had to be bold. So he decided to go for it, succeeding but fully aware of the attacks he would have faced if Penn State failed to convert.
"Of course I'm going to get crucified," he said. "But that's part of the job. It was the fourth overtime. I felt like it was time for somebody to win the game."
That the game even went to overtime was remarkable. Michigan had no business losing.
The Wolverines had a 34-24 fourth-quarter lead and then a 34-27 lead when they drove the ball for about four minutes late in the fourth. They gained a first down on a controversial pass interference call on Adrian Amos and another on a scramble by quarterback Devin Gardner.
The Wolverines punted, and Penn State's offense had 50 seconds to go 80 yards. The Nittany Lions needed only 23 of those seconds to tie it, scoring on quarterback Christian Hackenberg's sneak after he completed long passes to receivers Brandon Felder and Allen Robinson.
The improbable had happened. Penn State had gone from in control and ahead by 11 at halftime to down and out in the fourth quarter to taking the game to overtime. From there, it still wasn't easy but Penn State finished the task.
What stood out in the fourth was the mood on the bench. The players have seen a lot of these the past two years, and it showed. As the fans screamed for the big plays and mercilessly booed the officials, and momentum shifted back and forth and back and forth again, the Penn State players stayed calm.
"We're resilient, man," Felder said. "We stuck in there, and we got the victory."
Mark Dent: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-439-3791. Twitter: @mdent05. First Published October 12, 2013 2:39 PM