A signature win for an improbable 100th career victory Saturday seemed unlikely for Bret Bielema.
Especially as Bielema's Illinois team found itself a 24.5-point underdog at Big Ten rival Penn State – which entered the game ranked 7th nationally and had dispatched the Illini last December by 35 points in the same venue.
But Illinois gutted it out – and Bielema said his team's 20-18, nine-overtime victory – NINE – resulted, in part, because his squad out-toughed the Nittany Lions.
“We just felt the bigger we got,” Bielema said postgame, “we felt we could dictate what we were going to get out of them a little bit better.”
Illinois dictated the game on both sides of the ball; the box score hardly showed the type of production that might be expected from the longest overtime-game under college football's new rules, which require teams to begin attempting two-point conversions from the 3-yard line beginning with the third overtime session.
The Illinois amassed 395 yards and limited Penn State to just 227 – 60 yards below the Nittany Lions' previous season low.
"One of the things here at Penn State is you get a lot of cold showers," said Bielema, who was rewarded with a game ball from his Illini squad after the win. "So we’ve been talking all week about, ‘Let’s take a cold shower.’ That was kind of our theme. …
"They just buy into little stuff like that. It’s fun for them, but it’s fun for the parents. It’s fun for their friends, their families. It’s fun for them to make a phone call to their parents that weren’t here and talk about what they just did. Hopefully, it’s just another step in the right direction.”
Additionally, Illinois commanded the ball for 36 minutes, 25 seconds; the offense gashed PSU for 357 rushing yards and held PSU to 62 yards rushing.
And the Illini likewise had consistently extended drives; they converted 9-for-18 on third downs while the Nittany Lions finished 4-for-17.
With a one-play mantra, Bielema said the Illini banded together and played as a collective unit – with no regard for individual egos.
“It's just a bunch of guys that play really well together and don't care who gets the credit; they just wan the results,” Bielema said.
Bielema praised the new overtime format as an exciting element for players and fans alike. Both teams kicked field goals in each of the first two traditional overtime possessions from the 25-yard line; then Illinois failed to score on a two-point play in five of the next seven OTs.
Penn State failed in six, and Brandon Peters' pass to Casey Washington proved decisive for Illinois.
“I gotta believe those two-point plays (were) a lot of fun for the fans,” he said. “It was fun for us, in a way it gets the guys going.
“Every play is another opportunity and when there's a stop, you knew what you had to do. When there was a touchdown, you knew what you had to do.”
It all was a dramatic difference from the last time Bielema stood on the Penn State grass -- the day last December that he accepted the job to replace the dismissed Lovie Smith.
"I thought about being on this field, a year ago on this field on that far corner the day I took this job," Bielema said, "And I told those guys on Thursday morning when we met that this journey started together on this field. ...
"I had no idea it was my 100th victory [as a head coach]. I had no idea. I told the crew obviously a lot of those victories came from other places, so hopefully this is the start of a hundred more here. I love this atmosphere. I think our players have bought in 100 times over."