NCAA FOOTBALL: Scrappy Lions prevail in longest game in school history
STATE COLLEGE — Happy Valley was a cacophony of bells and songs and cheers that echoed all the way to Mount Nittany.
It sure beat the alternative for Bill Belton.
On fourth-and-1 and with an upset on the line, Belton dove ahead for 3 yards. Three plays later, he was in the end zone, and Penn State’s party was on.
“If I don’t get the yard,” Belton said, “I’m going to hear it the rest of the time I’m here.”
Instead, he settled for that familiar refrain of 100,000 fans swapping “We are!” “Penn State!” chants, a needed release after the longest game in team history.
Belton ran for a 2-yard touchdown in the fourth overtime to lift Penn State past No. 18 Michigan 43-40 in maybe the biggest win in coach Bill O’Brien’s two seasons with the Nittany Lions.
Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg was sensational in regulation on the tying drive, completing passes of 29 yards to Brandon Felder and 33 yards to Allen Robinson to bring the ball to the 1 with 29 seconds left.
The freshman quarterback sneaked in for the first rushing touchdown against Michigan this season, tying the game at 34.
Brendan Gibbons kicked two field goals and missed two — one was blocked — in OT for the Wolverines (5-1, 1-1). Sam Ficken kicked two, but passed on even trying another on the last possession. Instead, Penn State went on fourth-and-1 from the 16. Belton converted and made the gamble a good one.
“Coach had confidence in me,” he said, “and I had confidence that I would be able to get the one yard we needed to keep the game going,”
The Nittany Lions (4-2, 1-1 Big Ten) stormed the field in wild celebration, sending more than 100,000 fans into a frenzy.
“I just ran somewhere and hit somebody,” Hackenberg said. “I saw him bounce it and I saw he had the edge and after that I just ran over to the sideline to celebrate with my teammates.”
Still recovering from scandal, the Nittany Lions gave 107,884 fans at Beaver Stadium at long last a milestone celebration in Happy Valley. The Nittany Lions mobbed O’Brien, and he led the charge toward the students in the stands to sing the fight song. Penn State’s victory bell rang long after the players had stunned the unbeaten Wolverines.
“Nothing should amaze you,” O’Brien said. “There’s going to be twists and turns. These are tough kids. They love Penn State. They love playing for each other. The locker room is such a great scene right now because these kids really believe in each other.”
Hackenberg, who threw for 305 yards, made it possible with plenty of help from his receivers on the final drive of the fourth.
Robinson expanded his 6-foot-3 frame about another 4 inches on a fantastic, outstretched leap in the corner that sent him crashing down a yard from the goal line.
“It was just me and (the defender) over there and it was a 50-50 ball,” he said. “He threw it up and gave me an opportunity to make the catch and I was able to make the play.
Hackenberg plowed through for one sweet yard on the next play.
The 18-year-old freshman threw three touchdown passes in the first half to stake Penn State to a 21-10 lead.
After throwing two interceptions and losing a fumble in the first half, Devin Gardner put the Wolverines ahead with touchdown passes in the third and fourth quarters.
“I think you always work hard at any time, but to lose in overtime, if you let it take a toll, it will,” coach Brady Hoke said.
Gardner connected with Jeremy Gallon for a 16-yard TD pass for a 27-24 lead with 28 seconds left in the third. Gardner was 15 of 28 for three touchdowns and he rushed for 121 yards.
He then hit Devin Funchess in the back of the end zone for a 37-yard TD and a 34-24 lead. Funchess had 112 yards receiving and two scores.
Ficken hit a 43-yarder with 6:35 left to make it 34-27, keeping Hackenberg and the Nittany Lions alive for one thrilling finish.
Gibbons missed a 52-yarder with 2 seconds left in regulation.
Michigan defensive end Frank Clark returned a fumble for a score in the third quarter to cut it to 21-17, and spark Michigan’s comeback.
Michigan did get a boost with the return of star linebacker Jake Ryan, who had yet to play this season after he suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in the spring.
“It’s not about mistakes. It’s about us executing,” Ryan said. “On some plays we didn’t do that and that’s what we need to get done. That’s what we need to get fixed.”
Michigan offensive lineman Taylor Lewan, an All-American who decided to pass on the NFL and return for his senior season, sat out the second half with an undisclosed injury.
This was a scene in Happy Valley straight out of the Joe Paterno era — not like the late Hall of Fame coach has ever been forgotten. His picture is still on billboards that line the road to the stadium and T-shirts with his image or name were still a popular choice for fans.
But make no mistake. This program firmly belongs to O’Brien.