UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Somebody had to win because that is what happens in college football. It's what separates the sport from the animals, or from soccer anyway.
But through regulation, neither Penn State nor Illinois could fully accept the gifts each one packaged for the other in the form of odd timeout calls, turnovers, illegal snaps and a sideline interference penalty. So this Big Ten Conference game went to overtime and then, finally, Penn State did enough right, winning, 24-17, after a 15-yard touchdown pass to tight end Kyle Carter followed by an interception by safety Ryan Keiser.
Keiser's interception came on the first offensive play of overtime for Illinois (3-5, 0-4). With the ball tipped in the air, he dived and caught it, realizing immediately that because of his sure hands the game had ended. It was a beautiful play -- one of the few in this game and one of relief. As happy as the postgame locker room was, the players realize they will have plenty of lessons to learn, considering they nearly blew a 14-point lead to a team lacking a Big Ten win.
"That game should have been over by halftime, really," Carter said. "We just have to convert on those mistakes."
Three illegal snaps that were part of 11 total penalties hurt Penn State (5-3, 2-2), as did a late Bill Belton fumble (he finished with a career-high 201 rushing yards) and a loss of offensive firepower. The lone score for Penn State from the 13:13 mark of the second quarter until overtime was a 35-yard Sam Ficken field goal that sent the game to overtime.
Let's talk about this overtime. Unlike the previous 60 minutes of game action, the scant plays provided some football to cherish.
Aware of what had happened earlier in the game and aware of what happened during an overtime session that lasted four periods against Michigan, quarterback Christian Hackenberg expressed a desire to end this game as soon as possible. He told his offense they only would be going one overtime.
"It was one of those gotta have it moments," Hackenberg said.
Yet another miscue, a holding penalty, put the Nittany Lions in a tough situation. They faced a third-and-goal from the 15. Coach Bill O'Brien decided to call his favorite play, Pearl. The team runs it nearly every day at practice. Pearl involves several options, including a running option, but Carter was open. He ran a post, faked to the outside of a safety and got inside for his lone catch on a perfect pass from Hackenberg.
"If that throw is 6 inches one way or the other it could have been batted down or intercepted," O'Brien said.
Had this play unfolded like the rest of the game, that's what would have happened. O'Brien didn't want to linger on this topic, though. He said there was no such thing as an ugly win. He wasn't too happy about a suggestion of Penn State being fortunate, either.
"I don't feel fortunate," he said. "Fortunate is when you win the lottery."
Others certainly have a right to disagree. After Illinois took the lead in the fourth quarter -- its first lead in a Big Ten game so far this season -- it did everything to relinquish it.
Here's a short list of some significant errors: sideline interference penalty; throwing the ball when it needed to burn off clock; calling a timeout when it needed the clock to run out. And those were all in the final five minutes of regulation. A more comprehensive list includes a roughing the punter penalty, a chop block that took away a touchdown and a holding penalty that led to an interception on what could have been a scoring drive.
How to explain all of these miscues? Certainly some of the blame can be traced to coach Tim Beckman. From his staff's embarrassing trip to State College a year ago to him committing an NCAA violation by chewing tobacco on the sideline, the Illinois coaching staff has been infamous for an assortment of gaffes.
Though O'Brien would never admit it, he has shown signs of exhibiting an icy relationship with Beckman. A postgame handshake a year ago showed it all. Terse would have been a nice way to describe their meeting.
This time O'Brien met Beckman afterwards and clasped his hand. It probably wasn't, but the handshake looked like one of gratitude.
Penn State made the right plays in overtime; to get there, though, the Nittany Lions had plenty to be thankful for.
Mark Dent: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05 First Published November 2, 2013 1:38 PM