UNIVERSITY PARK - With Penn State facing second-and-5 at the Michigan 20 in the fourth overtime on Saturday night and needing at least a field goal to keep its hopes alive, a huge hole opened on the left side of the line, and junior running back Bill Belton proceeded to run right into it for what appeared to be big yards.
However, just as Belton planted to make a minor adjustment in his route, his foot gave way, and he went down untouched for a 1-yard gain.
That's been the story for Belton. Always close. Always just a shoestring tackle or a slip from breaking a long run. But always just coming up short.
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Penn State running back Bill Belton stiff-arms Michigan safety Thomas Gordon on Saturday.
"I just have to keep working on taking my time," Belton said. "So many times, I'm falling because I see cuts, and I just want to go. I just need to continue to work on being patient."
Patience paid off for both Belton and the Nittany Lion coaching staff. Despite his struggles and despite going up against a Wolverine defense whose forte was stopping the run, Coach Bill O'Brien kept going back to Belton.
The 5-foot-10, 205-pound converted wide receiver from New Jersey repaid that faith by converting a big fourth-and-1 and then scoring from the 2 to lift Penn State to an exciting 43-40 four-overtime win before 107,884 at Beaver Stadium.
"It's crazy," Belton said of the thoughts that ran threw his brain as he scored the winning touchdown. "The first thing I thought was, 'It's about time.' I went through a lot last year.
Belton carried the ball a career-high 27 times for 85 hard-earned yards.
"I thought he had a lot of really nice runs tonight. I think obviously it was one of the better games in his career," O'Brien said. "I can't say enough about him. He's a guy that's grown up a lot on the field and off the field. I think the world of that kid."
Belton's travails are well-documented. He originally committed to Pitt while in high school, where he was a running quarterback. He switched to Penn State and arrived at University Park during a freshman year that became immersed in the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal and the eventual dismissal of Joe Paterno as head coach - probably his biggest moment before last night came from the flames of that, when he had a big night running the ball in the wildcat under interim coach Tom Bradley in a 20-14 win at Ohio State.
Then the coaching staff that recruiting him was swept away nearly completely. But he landed the starting running back job when O'Brien arrived.
However, he was injured early last season and never regained the starting position from Zach Zwinak. In the offseason, academic questions kept him from working out.
After a Zwinak fumble on the first play from scrimmage in the second half was returned by Frank Clark for a touchdown, though, Belton became the man on the run for the Lions. No one else carried it the rest of the way.
"We came into this game wanting to run the ball, whether it was Zach [or me], we just kept trying to pound the ball," Belton said. "One yard, 2 yards, everything eventually worked out."
The irony of the touchdown run was that Belton had so much room it probably would have gained 20 yards or more anywhere else on the field. Belton took a step toward the inside and then bounced out to the left where there was nothing but green grass and end zone waiting for him.
"I had a bunch of adrenaline running though me," Lion left tackle Donovan Smith said. "My guy came inside. I was kind of looking out there, and I saw him hit it and go. It was just like, 'oh my God.' In my head, I'm just sitting there on the ground going 'oh my gosh.' It was just ridiculous."
The bigger play, though, was three plays earlier. Penn State had fourth-and-less-than-a-yard at the Michigan 16 and had the choice to either kick the field goal to take the game to a fifth overtime or to try to get the first down.
O'Brien had been thwarted on a fourth-down sneak early in the game deep inside Penn State territory. After a time out, he elected to gamble the game on fourth down again, but, this time, he put the ball in Belton's hands.
Belton initially looked like he had nowhere to go, but, unlike he had done so many times before, he waited for a seam, leaned forward and picked up 3 yards to move the sticks.
Belton said it meant a lot to him.
"Coach had confidence in me, and I had confidence that I would be able to get the 1 yard to keep the game going," Belton said.
There had been rumors that Belton might transfer almost up until the first day of practice. He said he had good guidance in his life that taught him how to handle the difficult times.
"I was raised to know that I'm able to do everything," Belton said. "My parents taught me everything. When I was younger, everything didn't go my way, and last year not everything went my way, but they continued to tell me I can do everything and to have confidence in myself."
It will be interesting to see how Saturday night's effort plays into Belton's role after the Lions' bye week. Zwinak's fumbling issues have left the Penn State staff with a big question, and freshman Akeel Lynch has flashed a lot of potential.
Whatever happens, Belton seems content.
"Zach or us rotating, I think we'll do a good job with that," Belton said. "But being in there the majority of the time allows you to get into a rhythm. I enjoyed playing in the game [Saturday], and we just have to get back to work Monday."
It's just another waiting game for Belton. But he's getting a lot better at being patient.
"God has a plan," Belton said, "and I'm definitely going to enjoy this win tonight."