Overtime is Their Oyster

Kyle Carter

A Pearl of a play helps the Nittany Lions knock off Illinois in an extra session at Beaver Stadium.

The play, Penn State tight end Kyle Carter said, is called “Pearl.”

There is surely more top-secret, hush-hush, if-they-told-us-they'd-have-to-kill-us jargon attached to the 15-yard touchdown pass Carter caught from Christian Hackenberg in overtime Saturday, which in combination with Ryan Keiser's clinching interception gave the Nittany Lions a 24-17 victory over Illinois.

But at its simplest, that is what it is called -- Pearl.

Its beauty stood in stark contrast to much of what the Lions did Saturday. They frittered away an early 14-0 lead, drew 11 penalties and saw Fighting Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase riddle their all-too-forgiving defense for 321 yards through the air.

Seemed like an ugly win, somebody told PSU coach Bill O'Brien later.

“There is no ugly win,” he said.

Well, how 'bout fortunate?

“I don't feel fortunate to have won,” he said. “I think it's a hell of a win.”

It was a victory at any rate -- much-needed where the Lions (5-3) are concerned, seeing as they were hammered 63-14 last weekend at Ohio State. And it seems obvious at this point that they do just about everything the hard way. Recall that their last victory, also in the Beave, came in four overtimes over Michigan, on Oct. 12.

This time they outlasted an Illinois team that fell to 3-5 and has now dropped all four of its Big Ten games this year, and 18 straight dating back to 2011. But after marching to touchdowns on its first two possessions Penn State did not score again until Sam Ficken kicked a game-tying field goal with 41 seconds left in regulation.

In between they penetrated Illini territory six times without scoring.

“That game should have been over by halftime, really,” Carter said.

Instead, they had to unearth Pearl. Given the first possession of overtime after the Illini won the toss, the Lions moved from the 25 to the 5, where they faced a third-and-one. Tailback Bill Belton, who rushed 36 times for 201 yards (both career highs), then skirted right end for an apparent touchdown, but another yellow hanky had flown -- this one after tight end Jesse James was found to be holding.

So, third-and-11 at the 15. Hackenberg faded and fired, drilling Carter right in the numbers as he boxed out safety Earnest Thomas just over the goal line.

“Perfect throw,” Carter said.

Near-flawless execution, too.

“That's one of our go-to plays down in the red zone,” said Hackenberg, who went 20-for-32 for 240 yards.

O'Brien likewise called it one of his team's favorite plays. Carter was asked if that's true for him, too.

“It is now,” he said.

It was Carter's only catch of the day, and his first TD of the season -- a season he described as “up and down.”

In 2012 he was the team's second-leading receiver (behind wide receiver Allen Robinson, for whom superlatives no longer suffice), with 36 grabs. But Carter broke his right wrist against Nebraska and missed the final three games, then dislocated his left elbow in the first quarter of this year's opener against Syracuse.

“It definitely took a toll on me a little bit,” he said of the latter injury.

He hasn't missed any games, but he said the injury hampered him for the better part of a month, leaving him unable to bench-press in the weight room, unable to block on Saturdays. For the bulk of the non-conference season, he said, “I went in on pass plays primarily.”

Even so, he wasn't seeing the ball much. And while he had six catches in the Big Ten-opening loss to Indiana -- the point at which he said he was healthy again -- he has managed only 14 to date.

A big reason for that is Robinson's continued brilliance. He had 11 more receptions Saturday, for 165 yards. It was his sixth 100-yard game of the season, and the third time in the last four games he has caught 11 balls or more. He now has 66 receptions for 1,043 yards this season, his second straight over 1,000.

The rest of the receiving corps, as a result, has had to wait its turn.

“Everybody that handles the ball definitely gets a little frustrated,” Carter said, “but as long as we're winning games, as long as my friends are doing their thing, I'm definitely happy. I just take it in stride, and if I get a chance to make a play, I've just got to make sure I make it.”

As he did Saturday. So too did the defense when the Illini got their crack in overtime. On the first play Scheelhaase targeted Spencer Harris on the left side of the end zone, but PSU cornerback Adrian Amos deflected the ball to Keiser for his decisive pick.

“It was a bad play on my part,” said Scheelhaase, who went 33-for-52 through the air, with a TD and two interceptions. “I didn't see the corner drop back off as I was checking back.”

Amos, who made his second straight start at corner after spending the season's first six games at safety, said the Lions had seen the play, a crossing route, on video, and had practiced defending it. But the Illini did not run it until OT.

He also said that he and Harris both got a hand on the ball before it caromed to Keiser.

“I just went up and played the ball,” Amos said, “and Keiser, running to the ball -- right place, right time -- got an interception, to seal the deal and win the game.”

Keiser said he had no problem gathering the ball in, despite the wrap he is wearing on his broken left wrist.

“It's not hard,” he said. “I'm able to make plays fully, just like everybody else.”

The Lions marched 84 and 82 yards the first two times they had the ball, resulting in TD runs by Belton (of five yards) and Hackenberg (of nine). But the Illini began their comeback when Taylor Zalewski kicked a field goal on an untimed down at the end of the first half, after a shaky roughing-the-passer penalty against PSU safety Malcolm Willis.

Josh Ferguson ran for an eight-yard score in the third quarter, then caught a seven-yard touchdown pass from Scheelhaase with 5:30 left in regulation, giving the Illini a 17-14 lead.

Belton lost a fumble at the Illinois 2 with 3:23 left, but the Lions regained possession and were able to set Ficken up for the tying field goal.

After that, it was just a matter of searching for Pearl. And where PSU was concerned, it couldn't have looked much better.

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