O’Brien doesn’t feel fortunate to beat Illinois

UNIVERSITY PARK – Bill O’Brien begged to differ on a couple of reporters’ choice of words.

Both wondered if he considered the Nittany Lions “fortunate” to have escaped Saturday afternoon with a 24-17 overtime victory over Illinois.

And he did not.

“I don’t feel fortunate,” he said, turning stern in the post-game press conference. “Fortunate is when you win the lottery.”

To O’Brien, Penn State’s win was earned – hard earned – as the Nittany Lions created several games worth of adversity and yet were strong enough and resilient enough to overcome all of it.

“To me, we went out and did what we have to do to win the football game,” O’Brien said. “I feel happy we won, but I don’t feel fortunate.”

Nor would O’Brien classify the game as less than the artistic gem that it wasn’t – and, though he didn’t say so, his mindset probably goes back to being placed at a competitive disadvantage by the NCAA.

Thus, despite barely beating an Illinois team that has not won a Big Ten game in two seasons, O’Brien said Saturday, “We cherish every win. We cherish every single win here at Penn State. We got a happy locker room. Give credit to Illinois – they’re a much improved football team. Our kids battled. There is no ugly win.”

He didn’t debate that the Lions “made too many mistakes. I told the team, ‘Congratulations, but I do believe we can be a better football team.”

Consider Penn State won this game despite committing 11 penalties, despite being inside Illinois’ 25 three times and coming away with zero points, despite missing a 37-yard field goal, despite fumbling at the Illinois 2 with 3:23 and no timeouts left in regulation and despite having a touchdown called back in overtime.

If O’Brien wants to split hairs over wording, surely he would agree that the Nits were at least fortunate to be playing the Fighting Illini. Otherwise, most other visiting Big Ten teams would have left here with a W.

“I think we’re a better team than we showed today,” linebacker Glenn Carson said. “I guess we like to make things interesting.”

No doubt they accomplished that, and without a bowl game, Penn State is giving its fans their money’s worth. The ones who hung around to the end have now witnessed three overtime games – all victories – in the last six home games and several entertaining finishes.

Just as the Lions were gracious to their fans, Illinois was a most gracious guest: The Illini didn’t just shoot themselves in the foot, they blew their feet off.

Tim Beckman’s club committed nine penalties of their own, also had a touchdown called back via penalty and committed three major infractions on the game’s first three series.

“The referees saw a lot of penalties,” O’Brien said.

The questionable calls weren’t limited to the officials.

Up 14-0, Penn State got away from the run in the red zone and, as a result, arguably couldn’t sustain its early momentum.

The Lions then found themselves out of timeouts midway through the fourth quarter because they nearly let the play clock expire once and also burned two defensive timeouts.

Beckman was just as charitable, throwing from his own end zone with a 17-14 lead when the Illini needed to run clock and then going for the home run in the end zone on the first play of overtime down 24-17.

The pass was intercepted, and PSU emerged at 5-3 overall, 2-2 in the Big Ten and feeling a decent season can still be salvaged.

“I think we have a chance to be a good football team,” O’Brien said. “And I think there’s a lot of football left.”

And, thanks to the end result Saturday, to feel good about their stretch run, at least the Nittany Lions don’t need to win the lottery.

Rudel can be reached at