STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – It was a game like no other in college football history, taking a record nine overtimes Saturday before a winner was decided between No. 7 Penn State and 23-point underdog Illinois.
At the end, it was Fighting Illini backup quarterback Brandon Peters hitting Casey Washington with a two-point conversion pass in the ninth overtime to give the visitors the upset, a 20-18 victory over the Nittany Lions before a stunned crowd at Beaver Stadium.
Playing after a bye week, the Lions (5-2, 2-2 Big Ten) looked nothing like the team that defeated two ranked teams in the first half of the season.
Quarterback Sean Clifford, who was injured two weeks ago against Iowa, started and played the entire game but looked to be at less than 100%. He avoided any attempt at running with the football and added to speculation that he suffered a rib injury at Iowa.
Clifford was rather mum when asked about his injury after the game, saying only “I felt fine” and that he was not limited in what he was able to do.
Asked about starting, he said, “It was a decision throughout the week, (Friday) I guess a little bit. (Saturday) getting into it, I was just making sure I was healthy.”
The Fighting Illni (3-5, 2-3) repeatedly shredded the Lions defense on the ground, rushing for 357 yards. Sophomore Chase Brown gained 223 yards on 33 carries.
Penn State didn’t score in the second half, and Illinois tied the game 10-10 on James McCourt’s 37-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter. That’s how it stayed until the overtime.
“Obviously we did not have our guys ready to play,” head coach James Franklin said. “At the end of the day, all that matters is we get the job done, and we did not today, I did not today.”
Under the new overtime rules, teams get only two possessions from the opponent’s 25-yard line, and then the period becomes a dual of two-point conversion attempts from the 3. So when McCourt and Penn State’s Jordan Stout exchanged field goals in the first two OTs, the two teams pulled out their best short-yardage plays.
The crazy thing was, each team ran seven plays, with the Lions going 1-for-7 and Illinois 2-for-7. Each team scored in the eighth overtime, with Peters flipping a pass to Isaiah Williams on jet-sweep action to make it 18-16, and Penn State answering on Noah Cain’s run up the middle to force a ninth extra period.
Clifford couldn’t connect with Parker Washington on the Lions’ try, and the Fighting Illini sent everyone home with Peters’ pass to Washington in the back of the end zone.
The mystery was solved
Yes, that was Clifford starting the game at quarterback for Penn State, two weeks after suffering an undisclosed injury after a big hit at Iowa. The fifth-year senior had one streak on the Nittany Lions’ first touchdown drive, completing three passes for 89 yards including a 42-yard touchdown strike to KeAndre Lambert-Smith in the first quarter. But it was clear after that that Clifford was not 100%, missing passes that he usually hits. After the TD drive, he completed just 3 of his next 12 passes for 40 yards. That, coupled with the lack of a running game (again!) made it a bad day for the Lions’ offense. He also took his share of hits, with an apparent late hit that wasn’t called leaving him a little shaken.
Life without Mustipher
Defensive tackle PJ Mustipher, out for the season with an apparent knee injury, encouraged his teammates from his scooter in pregame warmups. But it didn’t help his buddies on the defensive line that struggled all day with Illinois’ running game. Sophomore Chase Brown gashed the defense, repeatedly making it into the second level, and 240-pound freshman Josh McCray showed versatility running between the tackles and on the edge. Brown finished with 223 yards on 33 carries and scored a touchdown, and McCray added 142 yards on 22 carries. Illinois passed for only 38 yards on eight completions in 21 attempts.
As bizarre as it gets
The game officials didn’t really have a good day in the opinion of Penn State fans, but they really stepped front and center on an Illinois drive early in the fourth quarter that saw penalty flags take two touchdowns by the Fighting Illini off the board. The officials flagged Illinois for an ineligible man downfield on the first touchdown, then came up with a second penalty – offensive pass interference – after another conference. Brown fixed that with a 14-yard touchdown run, but Illinois was assessed a holding penalty. The drive ended on a 37-yard field goal by McCourt that tied the game at 10 with 11:49 to play in the fourth quarter.