STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — Whatever you do, don’t talk to Bill O’Brien about good fortune.
After Penn State’s 24-17 come-from-behind, overtime win over Illinois on Saturday, a reporter asked the second-year Nittany Lion coach if he felt fortunate to win the game.
O’Brien bristled at the assertion that fortune played any part.
“I never feel fortunate to win. I think our kids battled,” he said. “I think we were a resilient team. We won a football game.”
For the better part of two years, O’Brien has repeated that he has a roster full of tough, smart, resilient players. It’s almost become a cliché.
With the Nittany Lions’ list of scholarship players dwindling into the 60s because of NCAA sanctions, compared to the 85 maximum for other teams, Penn State has still been competitive.
Penn State is 5-3 and 2-2 in the Big Ten, with an embarrassing 44-24 loss Oct. 5 at Indiana, the first in program history to the Hoosiers.
Many thought that would signal a slide, especially with Michigan and Ohio State looming next on the schedule.
But the Nittany Lions came away with a 43-40 four-overtime win over Michigan.
Then, when Penn State was shellacked 63-14 by Ohio State on Oct. 26 in Columbus, alarm bells sounded again. The defense had allowed at least 40 points in three consecutive games.
The Nittany Lions sprinted out to a 14-0 lead on Saturday against an Illinois squad that was 0-17 in the Big Ten under Tim Beckman. The Illini battled back to take a late 17-14 lead. Suddenly, a loss to Illinois seemed probable.
But that much-maligned defense, despite yielding more than 400 yards of total offense, made some key plays down the stretch.
“That’s so important, when you just keep coming back and fighting no matter what,” safety Ryan Keiser said. “Even if you feel a little down, or the other team makes a play, you’ve got to keep playing and playing through it and that shows our toughness.”
With time running out, the defense held Illinois to a three-and-out and gave the ball back to the offense.
“We never really gave up on ourselves. We moved the ball really well. We were on the field a lot and that is good,” said wide receiver Allen Robinson, who caught 11 passes for 165 yards. “Coach is always preaching for us to keep fighting and that is something we preach to ourselves as players. Just to keep fighting for one another and get out there and make plays.”
Penn State drove to the Illinois 18 and from there Sam Ficken kicked a 35-yard field goal to send the game into overtime.
Even with the second overtime in the last three games, the Nittany Lions were still confident they would win.
“I was like, ‘here we go again.’ I didn’t know how long it was going to take, but I knew we were going to get the job done,” linebacker Mike Hull said.
And they did.
After a holding penalty wiped out a rushing touchdown, quarterback Christian Hackenberg rifled a pass to tight end Kyle Carter for a touchdown.
On Illinois’ first play on its overtime possession, Nathan Scheelhaase tried to force a pass to Spencer Harris in double coverage. Penn State’s Adrian Amos broke up the play and the ball bounced into the air. Keiser picked it off to end the game.
“We are a relentless team. We are never going to give up and that is something that is our identity,” guard Miles Dieffenbach said. “We are not going to give up and we always keep fighting until the end.”
Cornerback Jordan Lucas said the key is team cohesiveness.
“We just have to stay together. That’s what it’s really about. There are ups and downs to every game and when you stay together that’s when you come up and make plays,” he said.
“That’s what we were able to do. Our offense made plays, and we made a play on defense to end the game.”
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