UNIVERSITY PARK — In a matter of seconds, Bill Belton’s mind raced through the possible scenarios and consequences that would unfold should his next carry go for nothing.
The Penn State running back really only needed a foot on what was officially fourth-and-1. If he didn’t pick it up, that would be it. The Michigan Wolverines would walk out of Beaver Stadium winners. The Nittany Lions’ homecoming would be spoiled. He’d be the goat.
“I was calm but I was moreso worried about, ‘If I don’t get this I’m going to hear it for a while,’” Belton said. “‘But I’m going to get it.’”
He took the handoff from Christian Hackenberg and stutter-stepped, patiently waiting for fullback Pat Zerbe to finish his lead block, and picked up three yards. Four plays later, Belton became the hero as he bounced a run to the outside and strutted into the end zone untouched to clinch Penn State’s four-overtime, 43-40 win over the Wolverines in the longest game in Beaver Stadium history.
The vast majority of the 107,884 fans who packed the stadium rejoiced. Some stormed the field. Belton pounded his chest.
“That was a heck of a run,” Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said of the fourth-and-one run. “I thought he had some really nice runs tonight. I thought it was obviously one of the better games of his career.”
And Penn State, collectively, played its most memorable game of the season.
After setting the tone in the first half with three takeaways that resulted in 14 points and a 21-10 halftime lead, the Nittany Lions stumbled after the break. Penn State gave up a fumble return for a touchdown on the first play of the third quarter, surrendered two long touchdown throws from Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner and Wolverine kicker Brendan Gibbons added two field goals.
The Nittany Lions managed just two Sam Ficken field goals and trailed 34-27 with just 50 seconds remaining. Penn State didn’t have any timeouts left. It didn’t need any.
Hackenberg threw three passes on a desperate drive that got the Penn State offense upfield quickly. None of them were as spectacular as a leaping grab made by Allen Robinson in front of the goal line with just 27 seconds left. Then, Robinson outleapt true freshman cornerback Channing Stribling and came down with the ball at the 1-yard line.
Michigan’s defense, statistically the ninth-best in the country coming into the game, hadn’t given up a rushing touchdown all season until Hackenberg plunged ahead for the touchdown on the next play. Sam Ficken’s extra point all but guaranteed overtime.
“I thought when I was able to come down with it, I didn’t know where I was, if I had crossed the goal line or where I was,” Robinson said. “That wasn’t really too much of a focus. I was just going up to make the catch and trying to make a play.”
In just the second set of overtime periods in Beaver Stadium history, the teams traded field goals and missed opportunities.
Penn State couldn’t score on its first overtime possession as the Nittany Lions’ drive was spoiled by a sack and incomplete pass before Ficken missed a 40-yard field goal wide right. Michigan gained a total of two yards and kicker Brendan Gibbons had his 40-yard try blocked by Kyle Baublitz on its first possession.
Gibbons nailed a 25-yarder in the second overtime and Ficken followed with a 36-yarder to tie the score at 37 apiece.
But Penn State coughed the ball up on its first possession of the third extra period.
The Nittany Lions tried a reverse to wide receiver Allen Robinson but Robinson, who had carried the ball just once in his career before, fumbled and Michigan’s Frank Clark recovered it. Gibbons missed a 33-yarder wide left.
Gibbons got a chance to redeem himself to begin the fourth overtime. After Michigan managed just seven yards, Gibbons hit a 40-yarder down the middle.
Penn State was set up at the Michigan 16-yard line on fourth-and-one but O’Brien decided to call Belton’s number.
“I thought at that point in time it was the fourth overtime, I felt like it was time for somebody to win the game,” O’Brien said. “We can sit here and keep trading field goals back and forth, I think eventually it was time for somebody to win the game and I had the opportunity to do it. I think would probably say (Michigan coach) Brady (Hoke), if he was in that same situation he probably would do it.”
And Belton made it happen, much like the Penn State defense in the first half.
Anthony Zettel and Jordan Lucas nabbed interceptions and C.J. Olaniyan forced a fumble that DaQuan Jones recovered to give Penn State early life. With each Michigan turnover, the crowd, clad in all white, roared.
“They were the reason why we were able to get the stops we did,” Jones said. “My body was aching going into the third (overtime), so seeing everybody out there, how they’ve got our backs and just believing in us, hearing that crowd out there was great.”
Hackenberg finished with 23 completions on 44 attempts for 305 yards and three touchdowns. Brandon Felder returned to the lineup after sitting out last week with an ankle injury to catch two first-half touchdowns. Tight end Jesse James added a touchdown grab.
Belton carred the ball 27 times for 85 yards and was the team’s primary back after Zwinak’s fumble on the first play of the second half.
“It was definitely a good workout tonight,” Belton said. I’m going to get a good night’s rest tonight.”
Follow Travis Johnson on Twitter @bytravisjohnson.