UNIVERSITY PARK - Penn State found its identity in 23 seconds Saturday night.
The instant classic against Michigan lasted 4 hours and 11 minutes, and the most exciting 23 seconds didn't even decide the outcome.
No, the outcome was decided by a crazy, hodgepodge sequence of events over the course of four overtimes, and the fact that Penn State prevailed was due in large part to a lot of luck and because the Nittany Lions were only slight less worse than the No. 18 Wolverines.
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Penn State offensive tackle Garry Gilliam celebrates the four-overtime victory over Michigan as running back Bill Belton scores the winning touchdown.
But the 23 seconds that occurred at the end of regulation, that's what really defined the game, the players themselves and the Penn State program.
There is no quit in the Lions. None. They are as mentally tough as it gets in college football, and even when they appear dead in the water, you can't count them out.
That's their identity.
"It just says a lot about our kids," PSU coach Bill O'Brien said after Bill Belton's 2-yard TD run in the fourth overtime game the Lions a 43-40 victory before 107,844 fans on a whiteout night at Beaver Stadium.
Penn State took the field trailing, 34-27, with 50 seconds left in regulation and had the ball at their own 20-yard line. It seemed to be a given that the Lions (4-2, 1-1 Big Ten) would lose, but 23 seconds later, after just five plays, they found themselves in the end zone and breathing new life.
"It was controlled chaos," quarterback Christian Hackenberg said of the energizing drive.
"We had 50 seconds, we still had a shot," the quarterback added.
They believed they had a shot, even though hardly anyone else probably did.
"That's a situation that we've been in numerous times in practice," receiver Allen Robinson said. "From the time camp started to now, we probably have run 100 two-minute drills, with 30 seconds remaining, 50 seconds remaining, zero timeouts, one timeout."
Hackenberg connected with Robinson on the left sideline for a pass that was ruled out of bounds. But replay showed Robinson was able to snare it with a tiptoe inbounds, moving the Lions to the 35.
Hackenberg's next pass was nearly picked off by Michigan's Raymon Taylor, but it deflected right to Brandon Felder for a 27-yard gain to the Wolverine 38.
Hackenberg quickly spiked the ball, then came one of the great plays in recent Penn State history. The quarterback lofted a pass down the left sideline, and Robinson, a terrific athlete who has a 38-inch vertical leap, grabbed the jump ball over defender Channing Stribling inside the 1-yard line.
"I figured I'd give him a shot," Hackenberg said of his receiver on the jump ball.
Hackenberg scored on a keeper on the next play with 27 seconds left, capping the most improbable 23-second drive.
O'Brien said he initially wanted to go for a two-point conversion - "I wanted to win the game right there," he said - but instead chose to kick the PAT and go to overtime.
"We've got a team of guys who really just stay after it, no matter what the situation is and the game is," PSU guard John Urschel said. "Sometimes to the outside viewer it might have looked a little bleak at times, but our guys found a way to stay the course, keep working and we came up with the win."
They came up with the win because what followed during the four overtimes was, in a word, bananas.
It was edge-of-your-seat excitement, even if it was far from well-played football - on both sides.
Both teams made huge mistakes at various points in the overtimes, and twice Penn State lined up looking like it would lose on a field goal. To their credit, the Lions blocked one, and Michigan's Brendan Gibbons helped steal defeat from victory when he missed a 33-yard attempt in the third overtime.
A quick recap:
n First overtime: Sam Ficken missed a 40-yard field goal try, then Kyle Baublitz blocked Gibbons' low 40-yard attempt. Michigan coach Brady Hoke showed no sense of urgency on the drive, knowing all he needed was a field goal, and stayed very conservative with his playcalling to prevent his kicker from getting an easier opportunity in an incredibly hostile environment.
n Second overtime: Gibbons made a 25-yard field goal, then Ficken booted a 36-yarder. PSU linebacker Mike Hull made a sensational play when he broke up a pass intended for Jake Butt to keep Michigan out of the end zone.
n Third overtime: Robinson fumbled on an end-around on the first play. Michigan (5-1, 1-1) had third-and-1 at the PSU 16 on its drive, but again Hoke went with a conservative play call running Fitzgerald Toussaint, who had no success all night, to set up fourth-and-1 at the 16. Gibbons came on for a game-winning 33-yard attempt, but he missed wide left.
n Fourth overtime: On third-and-10 from the 25, Michigan inexplicably failed to realize the play clock was running out. Hoke didn't call timeout from the sideline, so the Wolverines were pushed back 5 yards. Quarterback Devin Gardner scrambled for 7 yards on third down, but again the Wolverines had to try a field goal, and this time Gibbons nailed it from 40 yards for a 40-37 lead.
It was all Bill Belton on Penn State's possession in the fourth overtime. He carried three times for 9 yards, and on fourth-and-1 from the 16, O'Brien made a gutsy call to go for it. Belton busted through for 3 yards and a first down.
Robinson dropped a relatively tough catch as he was defended on first down from the 13, and on third-and-8 from the 11, Michigan's Jarrod Wilson was called for pass interference after hitting Robinson early on a pass in the end zone.
That gave PSU first down at the 2, and Belton scampered around the left side into the end zone for the game winner.
"Perfect timing for us," Urschel said of the win. "Perfect timing to give us momentum going into the bye week so we can prepare for the rest of our Big Ten schedule."