STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Nathan Scheelhaase aimed for the left corner of the end zone.
His favorite target all game long, Spencer Harris, was there.
But so were two Penn State cornerbacks.
Da’Quan Davis made the initial tip before Ryan Keiser came down with the game-clinching interception on Illinois’ first play of overtime.
“Basically just trying to hit them with something that we had seen that they were doing,” Illinois coach Tim Beckman said. “We came back to it, and it didn’t work.”
It was a tough play for Harris to come back and make, but he said he needed to do so.
“That was my responsibility,” he said. “Either knock the ball away or catch it, and I didn’t do my job to help us win. I just tried to go up, and I didn’t get a chance to see the ball very well at all. It was partially my fault for not putting myself in the right position. I didn’t know it was an interception until I heard the crowd yelling, and I figured it wasn’t good.”
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Illinois’ first overtime game since its 67-65 three-OT loss at Michigan during the 2010 season didn’t last nearly as long. Only five combined plays were run in the extra session.
The fourth play featured the game-winning touchdown. Christian Hackenberg delivered a pinpoint pass that tight end Kyle Carter caught for a 15-yard score. Illinois linebacker Mason Monheim nearly got his hands on the third-and-11 pass.
“We talked in the huddle before that, and we kind of knew what they were going to try to run there,” Monheim said. “I felt like we were in pretty good position. I tried to force him outside and then flip my head to force it over the top. It was a great throw, a great catch.”
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Illinois still allowed 490 yards of total offense by Penn State, but the Illini made crucial stops in the second half to stay in the game.
“My hat goes off to everybody I played with on defense,” said linebacker Jonathan Brown, who had five tackles and combined with Eric Finney for Illinois’ only sack. “We laid it all out there.”
Zane Petty and Earnest Thomas each had 10 tackles to lead the Illini, while Mike Svetina had a season-high nine tackles. Monheim added eight. True freshman Darius Mosely, playing significant minutes at cornerback with starter V’Angelo Bentley sidelined with a left ankle sprain for the second consecutive week, had seven tackles and two key pass breakups late in the fourth quarter.
“I think the key is we just settled down,” UI defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. “We made a couple adjustments based on what we thought they were doing, but really the kids tackled well, got off blocks, and the defensive front did a good job. Everybody had a chance to make some plays, and everybody made some. I’m proud of them in that way but disappointed that we didn’t get the win.”
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Go for it or kick a field goal.
Those were the options Beckman faced early in the fourth quarter with the outcome still in the balance and Illinois facing fourth and 1 from Penn State’s 4-yard line.
Illinois came out with three backs lined up under Scheelhaase but then shifted to five receivers split out with Scheelhaase in the shotgun. Scheelhaase’s pass to tight end Jon Davis fell incomplete, resulting in a turnover on downs.
“We wanted to win,” Beckman said. “It was all my decision. We gathered up and luckily had a timeout there. We talked about it as a team, and we wanted to go for it. The final decision is my decision, and my decision was to try to win a football game.”
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Justin Hardee did his best to avoid Alex Butterworth. But the Illinois wide receiver was called for a running-into-the-kicker penalty after Illinois had stopped Penn State with 10 minutes left in the game and trailing 14-10. The penalty didn’t come back to cost Illinois, but the Illini finished with nine penalties for 71 yards, the most penalties and penalty yards they have had this season. Penn State wasn’t any better, getting penalized 11 times for 95 yards.
“It was a physical football game out there,” Beckman said. “There were a couple (silly) penalties, but you want them to be aggressive.”
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To say Illinois left points at Beaver Stadium isn’t wrong. Illinois had a 39-yard touchdown pass from Scheelhaase to Harris called back in the first quarter because of a chop block by center Alex Hill. It’s the second consecutive week Hill was flagged on a potential Illinois touchdown.
“We were running a slide protection,” Hill said. “The defender came in, so I went to cut him. I take full responsibility for it. It was my fault because we don’t cut on a play like that anyway. I was just trying to make something happen instead of just doing my job.”
Hill was understandably disappointed about the penalty.
“When I make a mistake like that, which causes us to lose momentum, it just hurts,” he said. “I’m not going to give up on myself or anything like that. We fought back the whole game, even with the penalties that we had.”
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With wide receiver Ryan Lankford out for the season with a dislocated left shoulder, Harris figured he’d have a bigger role Saturday. He delivered.
The Arkansas native hauled in 10 passes for 81 yards — both career highs. It was the first time an Illinois player had at least 10 catches in a game since Josh Ferguson accomplished the feat last year against Louisiana Tech.
“You hate to not see (Lankford) out there, and you know how much the game of football means to him, so somebody had to step up for us,” Beckman said. “I thought (Harris) did.”
The result overshadowed the big day for Harris.
“I don’t even know how many catches I had or yards,” Harris said. “I honestly don’t care. We didn’t have the ‘W.’ All I care about is having one more point than (the opponent), and that wasn’t done.”
Receivers Miles Osei and Steve Hull contributed significantly, too. Osei had five catches for a career-high 60 yards, while Hull added six catches for 59 yards.
“Some of those (Osei) caught on third down were kind of improvs,” Scheelhaase said. “He kind of knows what I’m thinking and what I’m trying to do. Being a former quarterback, he kind of has that mind-set. He’s a reliable guy that you know is going to go out there and make plays.”
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Scheelhaase led Illinois in rushing for the first time this season, carrying the ball eight times for 35 yards.
“I was able to make some plays on my feet,” he said. “The play I was most happy about was the 10-yard scamper I had (in the fourth quarter) because it came at a big time. That definitely helps us out when I’m able to get loose a little bit. It’s another thing the defense has to prepare for and get ready for.”
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The final statistics show Ferguson with an 8-yard touchdown run. Even though, on first glance, it looked like a pass from Scheelhaase for Illinois’ first touchdown. But Scheelhaase threw a lateral back to Ferguson, who wound up with a team-high 144 all-purpose yards Saturday.
“It was a play that we had where we thought we could get Josh out on a little flare route,” Scheelhaase said. “They kind of played it early, so I looked to run. Then they attacked me, and Josh kept the play alive. That’s kind of what you expect from a guy like Josh. He’s able to make plays like that.”
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Donovonn Young contributed after not getting a carry in last week’s loss to Michigan State. The running back had 21 yards on six carries, including a key 8-yard run during Illinois’ go-ahead touchdown drive in the fourth quarter.
“I kind of understood why I didn’t play much against Michigan State,” said Young, who fumbled in losses to Nebraska and Wisconsin. “I had some things to correct, and that’s what I did. This, overall, has been a tough season for me, but I came out here (Saturday), fixed one of the problems and didn’t fumble the ball. I’m still on a quest to prove to myself and to the fans that I’m still a good running back.”
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The tempo Illinois operated out of its opening series was quick. So quick that Scheelhaase & Co. were able to get off five plays in the game’s first 59 seconds. Illinois ran 76 plays overall, nearly double what it had last Saturday against Michigan State.
“Well, we wouldn’t do that (up-tempo) the whole game,” Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said. “We’re just going to be patient and keep the tempo up to wear them down. I know (we did) a lot better job of controlling the ball than last week.”
Hull said it was good to see the offense operate effectively at such an increased tempo at various times throughout the game.
“I think that’s what people can expect from us in weeks to come,” Hull said. “That allows us to play fast and catches defenses scurrying to get lined up. They’ve got to (identify) blitzes a lot sooner, so all those things help us be more efficient.”