UNIVERSITY PARK - Once Penn State got the football in overtime on Saturday, they made it look ridiculously easy.
The Nittany Lions scored twice in five plays against Illinois - overcoming Jessie James' holding penalty that wiped out Bill Belton's 5-yard touchdown run when Christian Hackenberg zipped a pass over the middle through a group of Illini defenders to Kyle Carter for what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown.
Had Penn State been nearly as sharp in the red zone in regulation it wouldn't have had to sweat out a 24-17 Big Ten Conference victory at a rainy, somewhat dreary Beaver Stadium.
"We had the ball a few times at the 25-yard line in this game, and we weren't able to put it in. We were like, let's just go out there and score some points," Lion receiver Allen Robinson said. "We've just got to focus on making some plays. Sometimes we leave some plays out there that should be made."
It's hard to believe, but the Nittany Lions only had two touchdowns and a field goal to show through 60 minutes of football while Robinson (11 receptions, 165 yards) and Belton (201 yards on a workmanlike 36 carries) were putting together spectacular days. Hackenberg was 20-of-32 for 240 yards. Penn State turned the ball over just once, and the offensive line only gave up one sack.
The Lions finished with 490 yards and eight of their nine possessions found their way into Illinois' side of the field. However, they were just 3-for-6 in red zone scoring opportunities.
That's against an Illinois team that came in allowing almost 34 points per game. That was coming off a 14-point performance after a bye week against an Ohio State defense that had given up more than 30 points to California and 24 to Iowa just a week earlier. The Lions converted 22-of-23 scoring opportunities before Hackenberg was intercepted in the end zone to halt a promising first possession against the Buckeyes, but now they've four for their last eight.
For a Penn State offense with the kind of talent this team has, with an offensive-minded coach like Bill O'Brien, that's a disturbing trend, especially when the defense has been struggling.
"We were moving the ball on them pretty well, but we just weren't finishing," Carter said. "That's the thing we've got to work on. We've got to stop the stupid penalties and finish when we get into the red zone.
"We can't have those mental mistakes. I felt we should have had more points on them going into halftime."
There were a lot of reasons for Penn State's inefficiency, and a number of players stepped up to accept some of the blame. Before Hackenberg lasered the ball to Carter in overtime, he was 0-for-4 passing inside the Illini 20.
"The red zone for young quarterbacks is difficult. There's tighter windows down there. Things happen faster. You have to make faster decisions," O'Brien said.
Hackenberg said he tries to approach things the same whether he's near the opponent's end zone or his own 20-yard line and that his struggles in the shadow of the other team's goalpost are more related to execution than anything else.
"Working on recognizing coverages down there, I think that has a lot to do with it," Hackenberg said. "It just comes down to execution on my part and being able to get the right guys the ball on time."
Which leads to another question/issue: Where have the tight ends been? On the 25-yard overtime drive, Hackenberg found his tight ends twice. That matched the tight ends receptions for the rest of the game.
Carter's only catch was his touchdown. Coming off an injury late in his redshirt freshman year when he caught 36 passes, Carter has 14 receptions through eight games. Lion tight ends as a group have 39.
"At the end of the game, we got a lot of other people involved. Brandon Felder had a couple of really good catches. The tight ends definitely help. It takes a lot of pressure off of Allen," Hackenberg said.
"It definitely helps when you get the tight end involved," O'Brien said. "We've tried all year to get them involved. Whether it's maybe poor throws, or maybe not great route running, some drops, maybe some better play calls [we haven't been able to do it]. The tight ends will always be a big part of what we do at Penn State."
O'Brien, as usual, was quick to shoulder a lot of the responsibility himself. He second-guessed himself for his decision to throw a fade route to Robinson on second-and-goal at the Illinois 2 with about 3 minutes left in regulation and Penn State trailing by three. Hackenberg and Robinson haven't been able to click on that route yet, and it was incomplete. Belton lost a fumble stretching for the goal line on the next play.
"Felt I should have run it there," O'Brien said. "Wish I had that call back."
Penn State also committed six offensive penalties for 55 yards. A tripping call against guard John Urschel moved the Lions back from the Illinois 23 to the 38 on a drive that ended with Sam Ficken missing a 37-yard field goal. Center Ty Howle's unsportsmanlike conduct on Penn State's next series after Hackenberg was sacked pushed the Lions from the Illini 27 completely out of field goal range.
"We can't stall when we're moving the ball," Urschel said. "You can't have penalties. This is something we're going to have to try to minimize as a team. It starts with me."
One concern has to be if the recent red zone problems will cause the Lions to press in the future.
"We really try to not let what's happened on past drives get to us. We want to do our best, work to perform our best, every single drive," Urschel said.
With a road game at Minnesota and home games against capable Nebraska and Wisconsin team to wrap up, that figures to be a test for the Lions as they enter the last four weeks of the season.
"We just have to focus on that in practice and pay greater attention to detail, try to correct it and get it better next time," Robinson said.