Listen to this article

It had begun to occur during the delirious nine-overtime combat at Penn State on Saturday — the longest overtime game ever — that fiercely aggressive Illinois might never complete another pass.

It was as though the team, while excelling in the Bret Bielema traits of sound defense and a withering ground attack, hadn’t received the message that beyond-the-line tosses were approved 115 years ago in 1906.

Two weeks after Illinois threw 14 consecutive incompletions against Wisconsin, starter Art Siktkowski stepped back to pass 23 times Saturday, threw one interception, twice lost fumbles among four sacks and completed eight short passes for 38 yards. He was OK with QB sneaks behind standout center Doug Kramer, but if you count the backfires, Illinois would have been better off running every play.

But finally, in that ninth overtime, with physical exhaustion and mental desperation consuming the states of Illinois and Pennsylvania, sub QB Brandon Peters saw Casey Washington waving in the back of the end zone and connected for an extraordinarily unlikely 20-18 victory.

It was only a 3-yard pass but that’s how the last seven overtimes began, each team getting the ball for one play at the three. You know, like a two-point extra point. Unbelievably, neither team scored a touchdown in the first seven OTs. Then both did in the eighth.

Frenetic finish is one for the agesThe result must be called unlikely because few expected a 2-5 team to make it close. The Illini were 23-point underdogs, had won once in 11 previous trips to State College since 1993 and had rushed for one first down in the 24-0 blitzing by Wisconsin.

But, to the astonishment of the huge assemblage, most of whom viewed this as a minor tuneup for Ohio State, Illinois ruled after Sean Clifford hit KeAndre Lambert-Smith for a 42-yard touchdown near the end of the first quarter. Not just ruled. Actually punked the hosts. When Sitkowski fumbled inside the Illinois 39-yard line, Penn State managed only a field goal. When Sitkowski was rocked and fumbled again in the third quarter, Penn State took over on the Illini 22-yard line and wound up with a missed field goal.

Still down 10-7 entering the fourth quarter, Illinois grabbed the game by the throat with two well-devised touchdown plays — a 14-yard pass to tight end Daniel Barker and a 15-yard burst by Chase Brown — but both were called back for penalties that seemed marginal on review. That’s when James McCourt booted the field goal to tie it 10-10, and he added two others in OT.

Isaiah Williams dove for a two-point conversion that Penn State matched in the eighth OT, setting the stage for the heroics by Washington who, earlier, had missed a open receiver on a reverse pass ... the latest in a season full of well-devised “trickerations” the Illini failed to execute.

My, oh my: what an upset win does

Only thoughtless writing would wait this long to detail the wondrous Illini running game.

We saw signs of it with a 336-yard outpouring against Charlotte, but this was different.

This was Penn State, the Big Ten leader in points allowed. Credit goes to Bielema and his offensive coordinator, Tony Petersen, for flip-flopping Julian Pearl (to tackle) and Alex Palczewski (to guard), for re-inserting Jack Badovinac at guard, for having veteran Alex Pihlstrom ready when tackle Vederian Lowe was injured in the first half, and for improvising with a nine-man jumbo front that blocked Penn State into oblivion.

But here’s the problem. It’s hard to maintain a long march when the Nittany Lions begin to station everyone but the rabid student section at the line of scrimmage. Nevertheless, Brown had 15 rushes of eight yards or more, including bursts of 28, 27, 19 and two of 18. His 223 yards certainly make him a candidate for Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week. And Josh McCray hammered out runs of 22, 16 and 10 in accumulating 142. No one could have possibly imagined that Illinois would outgain Penn State, 357-62, on the ground.

And so the Illini are viewed in a different light as they prepare for their next-to-last home game (11 a.m. Saturday) against Rutgers. If the Illini transformed themselves with a week off, we’ll see if they can sustain it.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.

Trending Videos