To anyone still having trouble comprehending Penn State’s quadruple-overtime win over Michigan — worry not. The Nittany Lions can’t figure it out either.
“At one point,” linebacker Nyeem Wartman said, “I didn’t even know if we were supposed to be on the field or if we weren’t. Or which overtime it was. I didn’t know.
“I just knew that we were still alive. Still fighting.”
Were they ever. Instead of heading into a bye week at 3-3 and demoralized after two straight losses, the Lions have a shot of adrenaline that might last all the way until kickoff at Ohio State on Oct. 26.
Just listing out all of the improbable happenings that led to the Lions’ 43-40 win is exhausting enough. Now imagine actually being in the middle of it — the longest game in Big Ten history — on the field.
“After about the second overtime,” Christian Hackenberg admitted with an exhale and a laugh, “you kind of lose track which one it is.”
Not that anyone’s going to hold it against the kid, an 18-year-old true freshman who just beat Michigan in front of 107,000 people. Not after a 305-yard passing night, throwing three touchdowns and then adding a fourth on a QB sneak to cap off that near-miraculous tying drive at the end of regulation.
That touchdown was the first rushing score allowed by Michigan all season long. One of just many bizarre numbers from a night at Beaver Stadium that may never be replicated.
In the end, it didn’t matter if it was the fourth overtime or the 14th. When the Lions faced fourth-and-1 and the option to kick a field goal to extend the game, Lions coach Bill O’Brien had seen enough.
O’Brien said he had very nearly gone for two at the end of regulation to go for the win right there before reconsidering and kicking the extra point to send the game to overtime.
Sensing that his players — the 61 healthy scholarship bodies that gave the unbeaten Wolverines everything they could handle — were drained, this call was easy. He wasn’t going to go conservative again
“I didn’t know if our kids could go much longer,” O’Brien said. “Some tanks were empty. Just went for it.”
With bruiser Zach Zwinak benched following a critical fumble that turned the game around just after halftime, O’Brien called Bill Belton’s number.
It paid off. He converted and then scored the eventual game-winning touchdown.
“First thing I thought was, ‘It was about time,’ ” Belton said of his touchdown, a career highlight if there ever was one. “Yeah, my eyes did light up. It was a designed run to go off-tackle. I saw Donovan (Smith) got his man blocked, I was able to bounce outside. I was able to get to the corner.”
Lions players said they could feel it all coming.
“The fourth overtime, I knew we were going for it all there,” Hackenberg said. “The fourth-down play, I just mentally prepared myself.
“I just had that gut feeling (that we were going to win).”
There was a time — a rather long stretch, really — where that feeling never came when Penn State lined up against Michigan. Or when it would surface, it would be cruelly ripped away by the Wolverines, who at one point had won nine straight in the series.
Now the Lions have won four in a row over Michigan, scoring a stunning 165 points in those games. The first three, though, came against former coach Rich Rodriguez, who regarded defense the way most people regard a trip to the dentist.
But Saturday’s game came against head coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, the former boss of the Baltimore Ravens’ long-successful defense. That unit entered the weekend ranked 13th in the country.
That defense was strong enough to hold down Lions star receiver Allen Robinson for much of the game. It got to the point in the third quarter where Robinson had an animated chat with Hackenberg about getting him the ball.
“I wouldn’t say we went at it too much,” Robinson said. “Anybody wants the ball in a game like this. … Sometimes I might say I’m open and he doesn’t think I’m open. It’s all about what he’s reading at the time.”
But with the game on the line and the Lions down 34-27 with 50 seconds to go, there was no doubt who Hackenberg was looking for.
Robinson made what might be the two most impressive catches of the season on the drive. The first was originally ruled incomplete before instant replay correctly overturned the call as Robinson got a toe down and maintained control of the ball.
Somewhere, somehow, Joe Paterno would have smiled. The late Paterno had always been furious over a 2002 loss to Michigan, in overtime no less, that saw a critical Tony Johnson catch erroneously ruled out of bounds. There was no replay system in place back then, and Paterno campaigned all year to have it installed.
A decade later, that replay system saved a historic Penn State drive from getting derailed right from the start.
Robinson fed off that catch and made an even better one, leaping high above corner Channing Stribbling to snatch the ball away and land at the Michigan 1.
The rest was history.
“There aren’t too many places on Earth that you’d rather be,” Robinson said in the afterglow of the win. “Or rather play in than a game like this tonight.”
“The greatest,” guard Miles Dieffenbach said. “The greatest game I’ve ever played in.”