While Bill Belton and Allen Robinson were constantly involved, Kyle Carter was hanging around, waiting to get into the action.
Belton set the tone and churned out the first 200-plus yard rushing game for Penn State in over a decade. Robinson continued his torrid pace and kept the Illinois Fighting Illini on their heels.
But it was Carter who made the biggest play.
After Belton ran for 201 yards and a touchdown on 38 carries and Robinson added 165 yards on 11 catches, Carter hauled in a 15-yard touchdown in overtime to help seal the Nittany Lions’ 24-17 win over Illinois at Beaver Stadium on Saturday.
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An interception by Ryan Keiser on the Illini’s first overtime possession clinched Penn State’s third overtime win in the last nine games.
Penn State (5-3, 2-1) took an early lead but had touble putting the Illini (3-5, 0-4) away. An early Nittany Lion lead gave way to stretches of stagnant offense that provided Illinois with a chance to take the lead late in the fourth quarter. In the end, Penn State was the team playing catch-up to an Illini squad that has yet to win a Big Ten game under second-year head coach Tim Beckman.
“I felt we were winning the whole game. It was just we let them stay in,” Carter said. “When they got up we had to get serious. We had to win this game. We couldn’t mess around with these guys. Once we ended up finishing it off, everybody was hyped. It was definitely a big thing we needed going into next week.”
Belton earned his second straight start and cranked out the most rushing yards by a Penn State running back since Larry Johnson rushed for 279 yards against Michigan State in 2002. The shifty tailback added 31 yards on Penn State’s opening drive and dashed into the end zone from five yards out to give Penn State a 7-0 lead.
The Illini defense couldn’t shed Penn State’s offensive linemen and failed to foil Belton, who averaged six yards per carry on first downs.
“I just came out and played my game today and the offensive line did a great job,” Belton said.
Meanwhile, Robinson added a 47-yard reception on third-and-four to keep his team’s first drive going and continued to torture the Illinois defense with long runs after short catches.
Robinson notched three catches of 20 yards or more and picked up 83 of his yards on short passes he turned into big gains with his legs.
“I’m just trying to read the guys’ blocks. Let the big guys get down field and give me some space to run,” Robinson said. “That’s the biggest thing and just being patient. There are a lot of times where you kind of get out in front of your blocks but I try to just stay patient and keep the ball where it is designed to go.”
Belton and Robinson were the only two Penn State skill position players to touch the ball on 18 first-quarter plays. In the second quarter, quarterback Christian Hackenberg got involved with his feet.
The freshman finished off his team’s longest drive of the season — a 17-play attack covering 82 yards and 7:15 of clock — with a nine-yard dash up the middle that ended with him lunging head-first into the end zone. The run gave Penn State a 14-0 lead.
The Nittany Lions wouldn’t score again until there were 41 seconds left in regulation. In between, Sam Ficken missed a 37-yard field goal wide right and Penn State punted three times, turned the ball over on downs and fumbled at the Illinois 1-yard line. During that five-possession span, Penn State gained 229 yards on 48 plays but had no points to show for its efforts.
“That was frustrating, being the quarterback understanding that we’ve really got to finish,” Hackenberg said. “We had shots to put points on the board a lot this game and we didn’t do it. I think offensively, that’s going to be our focus next week is just finishing. We’ve got to finish in those situations.”
Illinois’ offense started to find its groove. The Illini drove 96 yards to end the second quarter and appeared to run out of chances to score from Penn State’s 2-yard line when Nathan Scheelhaase’s pass to the end zone fell incomplete. But Penn State safety Malcolm Willis was flagged for roughing Scheelhaase and Illinois got on the board with a 20-yard Taylor Zalewski field goal.
The Illini drew closer with a 13-play, 88-yard drive capped by an eight-yard run from Josh Ferguson. A seven-yard pass from Scheelhaase to Josh Ferguson capped another Illinois scoring drive in the fourth quarter and gave the Illini a 17-14 lead with 5:30 to play.
Robinson stepped up again on Penn State’s ensuing possession. The junior wideout outleapt single coverage to haul in a 39-yard pass that set up Penn State with first-and-goal from the 5. But Belton lost his first fumble of the season two plays later trying to stretch the ball over the goal line.
“That was my fault. I made a mistake,” Belton said. “I shouldn’t have reached the ball out. I was being too greedy. I won’t allow myself to make stupid mistakes like that again.”
But Penn State’s defense forced a three-and-out and Hackenberg got the ball back with 1:44 to play. Penn State went right back to Belton and Robinson. Belton ripped of eight yards on first down and Robinson picked up 16 before stepping out of bounds on second down. Belton added seven more up the middle and Ficken tied the game with a 35-yard field goal.
Illinois still had 41 seconds and two timeouts but failed to produce as Anthony Zettel brought Scheelhaase down for Penn State’s only sack of the game to force overtime.
Belton went right back to work and looked to have the go-ahead score down the right sideline from five yards out. But Jesse James was called for holding and Penn State had to try again. This time it was third-and-11 from the 15. O’Brien called one of his favorite plays with plenty of options for Hackenber,g who went to his tight end, Carter.
“We have a play there that we like and we’ve got a lot of options on the play, including a run option,” O’Brien said. “It’s one of our favorite plays and Christian and the line and Kyle Carter and the back, Billy, they executed it well.”