STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Every day and never -- that’s how often things unfold as they did Saturday on the floor of Beaver Stadium.
Epic games like the one between Penn State and Michigan are the figment of kids’ imaginations and Disney producers’ creativity.
A four-overtime thriller? A game in which the winning team went from up 11 at halftime to down 10 in the fourth quarter (and down seven with 50 seconds left)? Only in the sandlot or on some Hollywood sound stage do things ever play out that way.
And yet, there it was -- Nittany Lions tailback Bill Belton skirting left end behind the blocks of tackle Donovan Smith and fullback Pat Zerbe to score the winning touchdown in the fourth extra period, giving his team a 43-40 upset victory over the No. 18 team in the nation (see Instant Replay).
“The first thing I thought was, ‘It’s about time,’” Belton said.
That feeling was no doubt shared by the delirious sellout crowd of 107,844 on hand for Penn State’s homecoming game. They had seen their team, now 4-2, rebound not only from a seemingly insurmountable deficit but last week’s 44-24 defeat at Indiana -- “a bad loss,” coach Bill O’Brien called it -- to hand the Wolverines their first loss in six games.
They had also seen freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg throw for 305 yards and three touchdowns, and sneak one yard for the tying TD with 27 seconds left in regulation. That capped a five-play, 80-yard drive that consumed exactly 23 seconds and included three big throws by the youngster -- two to Allen Robinson and one to Brandon Felder.
As Hackenberg said later, “We had the ball, we had 50 seconds, so we still had a shot.”
The fans also watched the Lions weather a magnificent performance by Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner. He completed 15 of 28 passes for 240 yards and three touchdowns, and rushed 24 times for 121 yards.
And yet, it wasn’t enough. Both kickers, Penn State’s Sam Ficken and Michigan’s Brendan Gibbons, had their misadventures. Ficken was 3 for 5 on field goals, Gibbons 4 for 7.
Gibbons could have won it with a 40-yarder in the first overtime, but defensive lineman Kyle Baublitz blocked it. He could have won it in the third OT, but he missed wide right from 33 yards.
He did put the Wolverines ahead in the fourth extra session with a 40-yarder, but Penn State had one more shot.
That brings us back to Mr. Belton. His impatience Saturday wasn’t borne so much from the situation as his ups and downs of the last two seasons. He has gone from starter to backup, from regular work to the trainer’s room, from promising backfield newcomer to question mark -- not only on the field but in the classroom.
But he saw all the work at tailback after Zach Zwinak’s fumble on PSU’s first play of the second half was returned 24 yards for a touchdown by Michigan defensive end Frank Clark.
Belton wasn’t great -- he rushed 27 times for 85 yards -- but he was good enough.
He carried three times for nine yards to begin the night’s final possession, leaving the Lions with a 4th-and-1 at the Michigan 16. Immediately Penn State lined up to run a play, but O’Brien came bounding down the sideline, signaling a timeout to the nearest official.
“I felt like it was time for somebody to win the game,” O’Brien said. “I felt like it was time to go for the win.”
The play call was a blast off the right side, with Belton again carrying the ball. At first it appeared nothing was there, but he somehow found a crevice and squirmed ahead for three yards.
“I’m like, ‘If I don’t get the yard, I’m going to hear this for the rest of my college career,’” Belton said, “so I’m going to get the yard.”
Three plays later, Michigan safety Jarrod Wilson was flagged for pass interference against Robinson in the end zone, giving the Lions a 1st-and-goal at the 2. Belton again got the ball, on a play that was designed to go off-tackle.
He bounced it outside instead, as Zerbe leveled a defender and Smith held his ground at the point of attack.
Belton took it in untouched, and the stadium erupted.
“My eyes did light up,” Belton said. “It was crazy. I always wanted to step up and make big plays in big games. This is just the first one. I can’t be satisfied with this one. I’ve just got to continue working.”
Hackenberg, who went 23 for 44, threw all three of his touchdown passes in the first half when the Lions assumed a 21-10 lead. But Clark’s fumble return turned the tide, and Gardner connected on two TD throws in the final two quarters.
The first, a 16-yarder to Jeremy Gallon, gave the Wolverines a 27-24 lead with 28 seconds left in the third period. The second, a 27-yarder to Devin Funchess, swelled the Michigan advantage to 34-24 with 10:28 left in regulation.
Ficken hit a 43-yard field goal with 6:35 remaining, and the Wolverines bled all but 50 seconds off the clock. That proved to be much more than Hackenberg needed.
“I think as a team we had the fire behind us and we thought we were going to be able to get it done,” he said. “And we did.”
First he hit Robinson (5-84 receiving) along the left sideline for a gain of 14, a play first ruled incomplete but reversed after a replay review. Then he found Felder (6-97) for a 29-yard advance to the Michigan 37.
His next throw was a lob to Robinson, again along the left sideline. Robinson made a leaping grab and tumbled out of bounds inside the 1.
“I figured I’d give him a shot -- give the guy with the 38-inch vertical a shot,” Hackenberg said, “and he went up and got it.”
Hackenberg sneaked in on the next play, and it was on to overtime. And then some.
“These are the type of games we live for,” the young QB said.
It’s just that they don’t come along all that often, outside the minds of kids or Hollywood moguls.
Then again, O’Brien said, “When you’re coaching 18-, 19-, 20-year-old kids, nothing should amaze you.”
Bill O'Brien celebrates Penn State's 43-40, four-overtime upset of No. 18 Michigan with fans. (AP)