Walt Moody | Fortuitous end doesn’t absolve Penn State of its issues

November 3, 2013 

— Bill O’Brien was adamant.

Even a little ticked off at the inference.

Maybe it was just semantics.

Two questions in the postgame news conference referenced the word “fortunate” in regards to Penn State’s 24-17 overtime win against Illinois and the Nittany Lion coach didn’t like it.

“I don’t feel fortunate,” O’Brien said, raising his voice an octave or two. “You two guys keep saying I’m fortunate to win and I think it’s a hell of a win. It’s an overtime win.”

The problem maybe was that not many of the announced crowd of 95,000-plus thought this clash would’ve or should’ve gone to overtime with a Penn State victory in doubt. The Fighting Illini had lost their previous three Big Ten games by at least 20 points and had been outscored 147-54 in the process.

Yet, Illinios — not led by Kurt Kittner, Dick Butkus or Red Grange — was 104 seconds from handing O’Brien’s squad one of the worst losses in recent memory.

Only a field goal in the final seconds of regulation, a bullet touchdown pass from Christian Hackenberg and an interception in overtime, prevented that from happening.

The margin of victory was extremely thin against a team Penn State has historically manhandled, including 35-7 in Champaign last season.

Maybe that’s why “fortunate,” was used instead of a harsh adjective and the word “lucky.”

Penn State improved to 5-3 with the triumph, the team’s second overtime win in as many home games. The extra-period heroics may help gloss over just how “fortunate” the Nittany Lions have been so far.

Michigan missed three potential game-winning field goals (one in regulation, two in OT) in the Lions’ 43-40 quadruple overtime win. Thanks to penalties, Illinois lost a touchdown and stalled another drive inside the Penn State 30. The Illini also had an interception in the red zone, not counting Ryan Keiser’s pickoff of Adrian Amos’ deflection in overtime. Illinois also had nine penalties in the contest.

The happiness over a 5-3 record could just as well be dismay over 3-5.

O’Brien, who came from the NFL, knows that wins don’t count more for style points. And coming off a 63-14 thumping last week at Ohio State, any Penn State win felt good.

“I think we feel really good,” said linebacker Glenn Carson, who had 11 tackles against the Illini. “It’s a win that we needed. We neded to feel better about ourselves. It was a tough bullet to swallow last week. I think everyone was hurting a little bit.

“You want to say Monday, we forget about it and move on. You do, but at the same time it’s hurting a little bit inside. We really had to get that off our chest and the only way you do that is with a win the next week.”

Still, coach and players know that this one was way too tenuous in a game the Nittany Lions had seemingly under complete control. Penn State hurt itself with 11 penalties, a missed field goal and a fumble on what could have been a game-winning drive near the end of regulation.

After moving the ball deep into Illinois territory four times in the first half, the Nittany Lions led just 14-3 at the break. The miscues kept Illinois withing striking distance,

“We knew we had to focus and score,” said tight end Kyle Carter, who caught the game-winning touchdown pass. “There’s no reason it should have been 14-3 at half. ... We definitely needed to see that we can’t mess around with teams like that, even Illinois. We’ve got to come out there and kill them early.”

The Penn State defense, shellshocked by Braxton Miller last week, gave up 194 yards in consecutive Illinois possessions. And with the score 14-10 in the fourth quartrer, Illinois marched 77 yards on 13 plays in a drive that nearly was the game-winner.

O’Brien admitted after the game his team was far from perfect and his players agreed.

“I don’t think we played our best game,” Carson said. “I think we’re better than what we put on film. We’ve got to play better, but we got the win.

“We’re going to go back and watch the film and continue to get better. Okay, we made some mistakes and didn’t play our best game, but we’re going to get that adjusted and continue to play hard and physical.”

“There’s a lot of little things that we’ve got to work on,” Carter added. “Coach O’Brien will definitely let us know what each of those little things are. It definitely does for now. Once you look at the film, everything is going to change.

“It was bittersweet. We knew we should have won this game and really we should have done a lot better.”

Penn State did get huge games from Belton (201 yards rushing) and Allen Robinson (165 yards receiving). Hackenberg’s game-winner to Carter was an NFL-like bullet that fit into the tightest of windows. And despite giving up 411 yards, the Nittany Lion defense allowed 17 points.

So despite the mistakes, don’t tell O’Brien about his team being “fortunate” or any other synonym related to that word. He’s not buying it.

“Fortunate is when you win the lottery.” O’Brien said. “‘You know what I mean like, ‘I won $50 million. I’m fortunate to win the lottery.’ To me, we went out there and did what we had to do to win the football game.’ Give the kids here at Penn State a lot of credit.”

Carter knows that credit will come with what his coach values more than anything else on Saturdays.

“We’re not there, yet,” Carter said. “We haven’t proved yet that we’re a a great team. Great teams beat other great teams. We definitely have to keep doing what we’re doing and try to wins these last four games so we could go 9-3. Then, we’ll be able to say we’re a good team.”

Walt Moody is sports editor of the Centre Daily Times. He can be reached at 231-4630 or wmoody@centredaily.com. Follow him on Twitter @wmoodycdt.

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