STATE COLLEGE Penn State's 24-17 overtime victory over Illinois was the kind of game where you could see what you wanted to see, and you might be right.
If you're Nittany Lion coach Bill O'Brien, you saw your team win a game it nearly threw away. It was a game decided by tough players, dogged by injuries in the past year, when tight end Kyle Carter caught the game-winning touchdown pass and Ryan Keiser, from Selinsgrove, caught the game-ending interception.
If you were looking to see Penn State show it was a better team than the one that lost 63-14 last week at Ohio State, and one looking to finish the season strong, you were disappointed. It's become clear through the first portion of Big Ten play that Illinois is one of the worst teams in the league and this was a game that the Illini easily could have won in the second half after Penn State failed to put them away in the first half.
Penn State tight end Kyle Carter catches a touchdown pass in front of Illinois’ Earnest Thomas III in overtime on Saturday at Beaver Stadium. Penn State defeated the Illini, 24-17.
Penn State may not be much better, and it certainly didn't play much better than the Illini. That was of no concern to O'Brien, who still won't poor-mouth any victory he can get with a reduced roster from NCAA sanctions. He grew increasingly testy at questions asking him to criticize an effort that could have been decided by halftime.
The Nittany Lions led 14-0 early in the second quarter, but a tripping call against guard John Urschel at the Illinois 23 stalled one drive that led to a missed field goal, then an unsportsmanlike conduct against center Ty Howle knocked Penn State out of field goal range on the next one.
"There's a lot of good football left. We have to cut down on the mistakes, but one thing I enjoy, I enjoy coaching this team so much and there are tough guys who love to practice and appreciate playing for Penn State who've stuck with us," said O'Brien. "I'm happy for them. Fortunate is when you win the lottery. You win $50 million, you're fortunate to win the lottery."
For Carter, the go-ahead touchdown in overtime was the highlight so far of a season where he's struggled to match the promise of a breakout 2012. This was his first touchdown catch after being the second-leading receiver on the team last year as a redshirt freshman. He sat out spring practice after his right wrist was injured last November vs. Nebraska. Then, after a healthy preseason, he fell on his left elbow in the season opener vs. Syracuse, compromising his blocking and workout routines for a month.
He said Saturday he's been at 100 percent since the Big Ten opener at Indiana. He also knew that the game should never have needed to end with him.
"Penalties, missed field goals, that game should have been over by halftime," said Carter. "We have to convert on those mistakes."
Keiser has been working his way back into the rotation after breaking his left hand earlier in the season. Other than no longer serving as kicker Sam Ficken's holder, Keiser said he's back to full practice participation while still wearing a cast.
As a former walk-on who eventually earned a scholarship, he sounded a little like O'Brien in not wanting to downplay any win or opportunity.
"We wanted to come out again and make plays when we had to," said Keiser. "I'm super proud of the guys. It was a definition of a team win right there."
That doesn't necessarily sound like the game that unfolded on a gray, rainy afternoon. But then again, about two hours after the game ended, a rainbow appeared behind the east side stands.