STATE COLLEGE — Fifty seconds, 80 yards and no timeouts. Once Penn State got that out of the way, surviving four overtimes was the easy part.
First Christian Hackenberg erased a touchdown deficit with a historic final-minute drive. That a sellout crowd still had any voice left at all to celebrate Bill Belton’s winning touchdown, much less rush the field and swarm the victorious Nittany Lions was an upset itself.
The Lions used every last bit of energy they had left to stun No. 18 Michigan 43-40 on Saturday. It took four overtimes, countless momentum shifts and a little help from Wolverines kicker Brendan Gibbons to get it done.
An inch away from falling off an emotional cliff, the Lions rallied for their biggest win of the Bill O’Brien era just a week after its most disappointing loss.
“Somebody had to win this thing … thankfully Penn State came out on the winning end,” O’Brien said. “Just a resilient bunch of kids that cares about Penn State. They love this place.
“It’s a big win for us. It means a lot. Says a lot about these kids and this coaching staff that came back to work. … I’ve never been in a game like this.”
Join the club.
Down 34-24 midway through the fourth quarter, the Lions (4-2) kicked a field goal and got the ball back with just 50 seconds to go 80 yards for a tying touchdown.
Hackenberg and the Lions needed just 23 seconds.
Fourteen yards to Allen Robinson as instant replay overturned an incompletion. Twenty-nine yards to Brandon Felder, who scored two touchdowns. Robinson then made an acrobatic catch over a defender at the 1-yard line to set up the comeback.
Hackenberg scored on a QB sneak on the next play to send 107,844 fans into a frenzy. O’Brien briefly flirted with going for two and the win but sent out Sam Ficken for the tie to force overtime.
“Those are situations we practice everyday,” O’Brien said of the final drive of regulation. “In fact, that (deep pass to Robinson) we had at the end of the game, we practiced it just the other day. We knew there were specific plays we wanted to run.
“Christian’s obviously a very mature quarterback for being 18 years old. He’s just a fun guy to coach. Some of that was training and it paid off.”
But it wasn’t over yet.
Gibbons, Michigan’s veteran kicker, put a game-winning try just short at the end of regulation. He had a second shot at the win blocked by Kyle Baublitz in the first overtime. He had a third chance to win it in the third overtime but pushed it wide left. And that came after Robinson fumbled the ball away on a reverse.
When Gibbons finally hit to open the fourth OT, Penn State responded with a winning touchdown, needing a fourth-and-1 conversion by Belton and a pass interference call in the end zone on third down set up Belton’s winning score.
Penn State forced three turnovers in the first half to build a 21-10 lead at halftime. But all of those good vibes evaporated on the first play of the second half as Zach Zwinak fumbled, allowing Frank Clark to return it 24 yards for a touchdown.
The Wolverines (5-1) took control from there on touchdown passes from Devin Gardner to Jeremy Gallon and Devin Funchess.
Michigan’s comeback attempt was even more impressive considering it happened without All-America left tackle Taylor Lewan, who exited the game in the second quarter with concerns over a possible concussion.
None of that mattered when Belton got the ball in his hands at the end of the game.
“It’s the fourth overtime. It was time for someone to win the game,” O’Brien said. “We could trade field goals all night, but it was time to go for the win.”
One that won’t soon be forgotten.