UNIVERSITY PARK — After Michigan placekicker Brendan Gibbons missed wide left on a potential game-winning field goal in Saturday’s first overtime, Penn State director of athletics David Joyner turned to a reporter and said probably what a lot of people were thinking.
“You can’t make (stuff) like this up.”
That diagnosis from Dr. Joyner was spot on.
It took three more overtimes before Bill Belton finally put a bow on a wild 43-40 triumph against the No. 18 and previously unbeaten Wolverines.
In between that first OT and Belton’s 2-yard scamper, there were missed opportunities, miraculous plays, turnovers, heartbreaks and exhilaration, which certainly mirrored the first 60 minutes of regulation.
In the end, it’s a game that folks in Nittany Nation are going to talk about for a long time.
Maybe longer than the more than four hours it took to play.
And it gave a needed boost to a team and coaching staff that was stinging from a 44-24 loss to Indiana the week before.
“It’s a really big win for us,” said Penn State coach Bill O’Brien. “We beat a really good Michigan team that was 5-0. We’re 3-2 and coming off a bad loss. It says a lot about these kids and a lot about this coaching staff.
“We didn’t coach well last week and we didn’t play well,” he added. “We did a little bit better this week and the players did a whole lot better.”
If the Nittany Lions had nine lives, they used at least three of them up before the nearly 108,000 fans, the largest crowd by far this season.
After racing out to a 21-10 halftime lead, Penn State ostensibly had blown it.
Starting with the first play from scrimmage in the second half — Zach Zwinak’s fumble that was returned by Frank Clark for a touchdown — the Wolverines had outplayed the Nittany Lions.
Michigan held a 34-27 lead when Penn State inherited the ball on its 20. The Nittany Lions needed to go 80 yards in 50 seconds.
A mighty task since they hadn’t found the end zone in the entire half.
But the offense got a boost from math whiz John Urschel.
“We had Urschel doing the math about how much time we had left and we went from there,” offensive tackle Donovan Smith said.
“They came to me about the math,” Urschel said. “I just did a little quick math. It didn’t take too much. We were confident that if each of us did our jobs, we would be successful.”
Not even Urschel could compute that it would take just four plays and 27 seconds to make it work.
Bottled up by the Michigan secondary all day, Allen Robinson made the big play, soaring over a Michigan defensive back to haul in a 36-yarder to set up Christian Hackenberg’s 1-yard sneak on the next play for the tying score.
But O’Brien and his players believe the adage that “luck is when preparation meets opportunity.”
“We practice stuff like all of the time,” Smith said. “Coach puts us in situational football all through practice throughout the week. … He comes up with the craziest situations in practice. A couple of us look at him like he’s ridiculous, but it’s games like this that now we see why.”
The score sent a good chunk of the fans, who had already headed for the exits and stopped to watch the stadium TVs, scurrying back to their seats for overtime that was reminiscent of the Nittany Lions’ 26-23 triple overtime win against Florida State in the 2006 Orange Bowl.
It was similar to that bowl game in the number of missed chances to win.
The wild thing Saturday is that the OT almost didn’t happen because O’Brien thought about trying for the win in regulation.
“I felt an urge to go win the game there,” O’Brien said. “I feel really good about our two-point plays.”
Both kickers missed field goals in the first overtime and both made them in the second.
Trying to get Robinson’s hands on the ball in the third overtime, O’Brien called a reverse and Robinson fumbled it away.
Penn State needed another miracle.
“Even then, I still had faith that something was going to happen where we got another chance,” Smith said.
The miracle came in the form of Kyle Baublitz, who pushed through the Michigan line to block Gibbons’ chip shot, the first block ever for Baublitz.
“I wanted to get a good push and just put my hand up,” Baublitz said. “I saw the ball coming toward the center and I put my hand there and it hit me in the arm.”
O’Brien said the block was another example of the resilience of his club.
“They don’t say, ‘Oh my God, we’re going to lose now,’” he said. “We’ve got an opportunity to go out and try to stop them.
“… Anytime you win a game like this, there’s a little bit of luck involved.”
Michigan took the lead with a field goal in the fourth overtime, but Penn State wouldn’t win this contest without one more gutsy call from O’Brien, who had taken his share of heat from the Indiana debacle.
He elected to go for it on fourth-and-1 from the 16 and Belton delivered a tough three-yard carry that led to his game-winning score.
“I felt like it was time for somebody to win the game,” O’Brien said. “We could sit here and keep trading field goals back-and-fourth. Eventually, it was time for somebody to win the game. I had the opportunity to do it.”
“It was ridiculous out there, man,” Smith said. “At one point, I couldn’t even breathe. It was too much to take in.”
Penn State (4-2) now heads into another bye week on a high as the Nittany Lions prepare for a trip to No. 4 Ohio State at the Horseshoe.
If Saturday’s game is any indication, the rest of the season will be a roller-coaster ride.
O’Brien says he’s prepared for whatever “stuff” comes with the rest of the season.
“When you’re coaching 18, 19, 20, 21-year-old guys, nothing should amaze you,” he said. “There’s going to be twists and turns. I’ve said it a million times. They love Penn State and they love playing with each other.”
Walt Moody is sports editor of the Centre Daily Times. He can be reached at 231-4630 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @wmoodycdt.